Algeria surrounds area of suspected terror conference

Friday, February 7, 2003

CAIRO Algeria's military is closing in on and attempting to capture leaders of a major Islamic insurgency group attending a conference.

Arab diplomatic sources said the more than 5,000 troops, supported by helicopters and artillery, have surrounded an area in the hills of the Baghata governorate about 300 kilometers east of Algiers. The sources said the area is believed to have been used for a conference by the leadership of the Salafist Brigade for Combat and Call.

More than 100 Salafist members, most of them commanders, are believed to be attending the conference and have become the target of the military operation. The sources said the operation focuses near the town of Kasila in the Kabilye region near the Moroccan border, Middle East Newsline reported.

The group has been responsible for the most lethal attacks against the military over the last two months.

This is the second time in less than a year that Algeria's military launched an offensive in an effort to capture the Salafist leadership. A similar attack took place in the summer in the mountainous region east of Algiers in a failed attempt to capture Salafist leader Hassan Khatib.

Last month, Salafist insurgents ambushed an elite Algerian commando unit. More than 40 soldiers were killed in the attack said to have been planned by Al Qaida. The Salafists are regarded as the biggest allies of Al Qaida.

The London-based Al Hayat daily said Algeria's military received intelligence information of the Salafist conference. The newspaper said the military has deployed 12 helicopters as well as 10 heavy artillery pieces for the operation.

Estimates of Salafist strength varies.Western diplomatic sources said the Salafist force has increased to 4,500 people. But Algerian military commanders said the force numbers about 500.

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