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Howls signal massacre in Algeria

Ahmed Aitar did what any man could. When he heard the terrorists of the Armed Islamic Group coming to his district, howling like wolves in the middle of the night, the 59-year-old driver let panicked neighbors take shelter in his three-story brick house, one of the tallest on the block.

Two hours later, when the attackers arrived in the street, he fought them with stones and bricks from his front yard. When they were breaking through the metal gate around his yard, he ran to the back and saved himself by climbing the wall of his house to a second-story window.

But by now, the attackers had blown open a door and were starting to kill whomever they found. Amid the chaos, curses and screams, Aitar managed to lead most of his neighbors, including one badly wounded woman, onto his flat roof for a last stand.

Their ordeal was to last four hours. When it was finished, 45 of 110 people in the home were dead, including his wife, son and daughter and the wounded woman who had dragged herself onto his roof. Bodies of children were piled in the street.

Retelling his story last week, Aitar collapsed and wept. "Why did it happen?" he said, sobbing. "Why me? Why did they come to my house?"

The struggle between the Algerian government and its opponents has taken many forms for six years now. Since early 1992, when the military moved to stamp out an Islamic movement that was about to win power via elections, there have been assassinations of government officials, journalists, foreigners and intellectuals.

Thousands of women have been abducted and raped. Bombs, torture, disappearances, murders at false police roadblocks _ all of these horrors have blended into a reign of terror in which, human rights experts say, neither side is blameless.

But none of these atrocities of Algeria's dirty war have matched the extremists' latest tactic: the massacres of scores, sometimes hundreds, of innocent civilians, at night, in their homes, mainly in an area just south of the capital that has become known as the "Triangle of Death."

The two largest massacres were in Sidi-Rais and in Bentalha, drab bedroom suburbs of Algiers, where brick houses shelter working-class Algerians.

In Sidi-Rais, 500 people were murdered on Aug. 28, unofficial sources say, and more than 200 at Bentalha on Sept. 23. Government tolls are lower: 180 dead at Sidi-Rais and 100 at Bentalha.

Why these areas, which supported the banned Islamic Salvation Front in the last election, were targeted is as murky as the Algerian conflict. Some residents saw it as punishment for withholding support from the insurgents. Others think the regime or its supporters took reprisal against those who had been too supportive of the opposition. To others, the communities were simply vulnerable; massacres embarrass the regime.

One Sidi-Rais survivor emphasized just how methodical the killers were. From his hiding place, he could hear them encouraging each other. "Please do your job slowly. Don't hurry," he heard one terrorist say.

Aitar, the driver, was in bed on a Tuesday night when he heard the howls shortly after 11:30 p.m. Other witnesses said the attackers had arrived in small groups and surrounded two Bentalha neighborhoods, preventing escape. Their howls were followed by gunshots and screams.

It was not until 1 a.m. that the assault started at Aitar's home. After he and 65 or so others had made it to the roof, they burned clothing and gasoline on the concrete steps to keep a barrier between themselves and the killers.

When the attackers tried to clamber up, they were forced back by a barrage of bricks, stones and metal rods. They fired at the crowd with Kalashnikov rifles, but the twisting structure of the stairs spared those on the roof for a time.

Down below, a slaughter was under way. The attackers cut off a room filled with children and mothers. They hurled 10 youngsters to the street from a third-floor window; others _ wielding knives, axes and machetes _ slit the throats of the injured, including a 1-year-old.

Some victims fell in place, including Aitar's wife of 35 years; she was gunned down in the kitchen. His son, 24, and daughter, 19, were mowed down.

The marauders, who already had stolen money from the house and had stripped jewelry from corpses, departed with a final insult, casting gasoline all around and igniting what would become a bonfire of Aitar's home. That blaze alerted firefighters _ who eventually rescued Aitar and his neighbors from the roof redoubt.

Still, during the evening of nightmarish bloodletting, no police or soldiers ever came to the scene _ although a large army garrison was only 800 yards away.

At his home, as he showed where he had hidden some children in case he fell victim and could not protect them, Aitar suddenly squatted and sobbed.

From a roof next door, neighbors watched in silence, for they too knew just how furious this killing spree had been. On several homes on Aitar's block, doors are bent from grenade explosions; window frames are blackened by fires set in the rampage.

At the end of the street, near a house belonging to Said Rabahe, who hid while witnessing the mayhem, is the site where 36 people were murdered. Rabahe said he saw the killers toss victims from the roof and slash their throats.

His own wife, daughter and son sought haven on the heights of a neighbor's roof. But they too were cast to the ground. He heard the sickening thud of the bodies. His three family members survived this ordeal. But his wife was killed after she hit the ground.

His daughter, 18, is missing. Rabahe thinks she was taken by the terrorists to be raped. "I think that she is dead. She would not have allowed them to touch her," he said.

His son, Boualam, was spared because he fell onto other bodies. He played dead for 90 terrible minutes and thus survived.

Algeria's deeper tragedy may be that none of these cases is so special anymore. With about 65,000 people killed since the struggle between the government and extremists began in 1992, there are few Algerians who have not attended the funeral of a relative or a friend. And, in the Triangle of Death last week, more bodies were found.