Mohamed Arezki Himeur / BBC News – 2007-09-17 23:05:10
ALGIERS (September 17, 2007) — “Here are my boys who were ‘eaten’ by the fire,” says Ahmed Smail, holding photographs of his two boys, aged three and five.
His wife also died when his village of Ath Smail in eastern Algeria was engulfed in flames during a forest fire, which some blame on the army’s campaign against Islamist fighters.
“I was in the town of Tizi Ouzou when the fire reached the village. My wife called out for me, shouting and screaming. She was terrified, panicking,” Mr Smail said before collapsing in tears. “I saw their bodies – they were completely burnt. It was atrocious.”
“We couldn’t do anything. The fire was too strong. The heat and the smoke stopped us going near,” said Kamel, one of the youths in this tiny place, where nearly everyone is called Smail, like the village. “Before we could fetch any water, the fire had already done its worst.”
Three men also died trying to put out fires in nearby villages in the tree-covered mountains of the eastern Kabylie region. While they were the only human victims, huge areas of olive groves were destroyed – one of the region’s main sources of income.
“After losing our olive and fruit trees, we cannot keep our animals, especially sheep, as there is nothing for them to graze on,” said Mohammed Seddik Smail. These are the “collateral victims” of Algeria’s fight against what it calls terrorists.
Local residents say the fires started after the army started shelling the forests where they thought Islamists were hiding.
“Amejoudh forest has been attacked several times in recent months. It was bombarded with shells and rockets fired from helicopters, which all started fires,” said villager Belkacem Smail.
Helped by the wind and temperatures which exceeded 48C, the fires spread to other forests before reaching small villages high up in the mountains. But the Movement for Kabylie’s Autonomy (Mak) goes even further. “The army deliberately set fire to olive groves under the false pretence of the fight against terrorists,” it said.
The army has said it was searching for a group of 60 “terrorists” hiding in Amejoudh forest near the region’s main town Tizi Ouzou but has never said how many fighters it killed or captured during the operations.
It has not commented on the allegations.
During the height of the fighting in Algeria, many forests were burnt and trees cut down near main roads to prevent Islamists using them as cover to stage ambushes.
Some 200,000 people have died in Algeria since Islamists took up arms in 1992 after the army cancelled an election an Islamist party had been poised to win.
Violence has increased in recent months, with a wave of suicide attacks, claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – the new name for one of the most radical Algerian Islamist groups.
More than 100 people have died in five attacks since April, leading thousands of people to march through the streets of the capital, Algiers, in protest at the attacks.
This follows a relative lull, after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his policy of national reconciliation and announced an amnesty for Islamists who handed in their weapons.
The president insists that he is still pursuing reconciliation but has urged security chiefs to intensify their battle against the Islamists. But some say the forest fires could lead to a loss of support for the president’s policies in Kabylie.
The region, where most people practise a tolerant version of Islam, is known for its opposition to the Islamist radicals. The residents of the mountainous village of Igoujdal were the first to take up arms and fight the Islamist groups in 1994. This was copied by communities across the country.
“The current operation to burn forests and fields could turn local people against the army,” said Abdlekrim, a teacher in Tizi Ouzou.
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