Highway robbery, racketeering and personal vendettas in Algeria have taken the place of an Islamist terror campaign whose perpetrators were recently amnestied by the government.
Although the movement to turn Algeria into an Islamic republic has lost steam, not a day passes without reports of bloody highway robberies reminiscent of those carried out by Islamist groups.
"It is too easy for some to make easy money or to take personal revenge while placing the blame on bearded Islamists who have been cutting throats for more than eight years," one lawyer said.
Algerian authorities have been saying in recent months that violence in the countryside was to be blamed on gangsterism rather than armed Islamic groups.
Army chief of staff General Mohamed Lamari claimed in January that terrorism had been defeated, "all that remains are holdups by gangsters."
In recent weeks Algerian newspapers have reported killing, holdups and personal vendettas, which were at first attributed to armed groups trying to establish an Islamic republic.
A gang specialising in setting up roadblocks was broken up last week by police in the Kabylie region, east of here. The gang was operating in the Tizi-Ouzou area, 100 kilometers east of Algiers, where it set up roadblocks, ransoming or murdering passing motorists or bus passengers.
Police said the gang was led by a bar owner who was also a part-time pimp. The gang was said to have pocketed more than one million dinars (20,000 dollars) over a few weeks - a large sum in a country where the monthly salary averages about 10,000 dinars - while killing three people.
The holdups often come to a tragic end, as in the village of El Hamdania, on the road to Algeria's southern desert. There, armed Islamists killed 24 people and wounded 21 on May 3 in an attack close to Algiers.
Former bank managers, who stole 120 million dinars from their own establishment after hanging the watchman so as not to be identified, were arrested soon after the crime.
Press reports also expressed doubt over the killing of a father and eight children at Tissemsilt, 200 kilometers southwest of Algiers. The victims had been horribly tortured and were found not far from their village, where they had been kdnapped on May 1.
The daily Tribune newspaper said it believed the atrocity, although carried out by an armed gang, was in fact a vendetta.
"This sort of event is developing in the country while the government's 'civil concord' policy has reached its limit," another lawyer said. He said Islamic violence was continuing, albeit on a reduced scale.
Since the expiry of an amnesty law in January, more than 800 people have been killed in Algeria, more that 150 of them armed Islamists, according to authorities.
The law was promulgated on July 13, 1999, for six months and granted partial or total amnesty to Islamists not guilty of blood crimes, rape or placing bombs in public places.
Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni said last Wednesday that about 6,000 militants had given themselves up under the amnesty.
These included 1,500 members of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), while the remainder was mainly from the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), which has observed a truce since 1997.
Algeria's civil war conflict began when the military government cancelled general elections in January 1992, which Islamists were set to win - (AFP)
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