Islamist insurgents ambushed an Algerian military convoy in the mountainous Kabylie region killing 14 soldiers two days after the country’s presidential election.
The attack near the village of Iboudraren began at 10pm on Saturday with 11 soldiers being killed and another three dying from their wounds later. A local official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said a large group of insurgents hid on both sides of the road and opened fire with automatic weapons as the military bus drove by.
The region has been the site of past clashes, including one three years ago in which 13 soldiers at an army post died. That attack was by the Algeria-based al-Qaeda (AQIM) in the Islamic Maghreb.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the latest attack, but it appeared to carry a message for 77-year-old president Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
The troops were searching for militants in the Tizi Ouzou region, 75 miles east of the capital Algiers, when they were hit by fighters from AQIM.
They were returning from securing polling stations for Thursday’s presidential election, which the government said was won by the ailing Mr Bouteflika.
Algeria fought a ten-year civil war against Islamic insurgents in the 1990s after the army cancelled a parliamentary election an Islamic party had been poised to win. Mr Bouteflika has been credited with bringing peace to this North African nation. Although sporadic attacks continue by AQIM fighters, they are now largely confined to isolated regions.
The Kabylie mountains are populated by Berbers, North Africa’s original inhabitants, who have long been disaffected with the central government.
Since the end of its 1990s war involving armed Islamists have been rarer in Algeria, but officials are concerned about spillover from the turmoil in neighbouring Libya.
The army has killed 37 militants in different regions of the country since January, according to the country’s ministry of defence.
AQIM is mostly based in the Sahel area which crosses southern Algeria, but over the past few months the army has killed several militants in the eastern mountains, and security sources say some have been found with weapons traced to Libya.
Abdelmalek Droukdel, the university chemistry student who become AQIM leader after fighting in Afghanistan’s civil war, is believed to be hiding in the eastern mountains. Algerian forces last year killed two of Droukdel’s deputies in Bouira, a former stronghold of militants during the 1990s war.
Algerian security specialist Rahmani Anis said: “This attack is a response to setbacks for AQMI which lost several of its militants in recent months, AQMI tried also to disrupt the election but it failed.”