Maghreb al Qaeda deputy killed in Algeria-papers

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ALGIERS, Oct 9 (Reuters) The deputy chief of al Qaeda's North Africa wing, believed to be the group's operational leader, was killed along with two other rebels in a gun battle with Algerian troops, local newspapers said today.

Hareg Zoheir, also known as Sofiane Abu Fasila, was said to be the second-in-command of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and suspected of being behind planning most of the suicide bombings in Algeria in the recent months.

He was shot dead on Sunday at a check point in the eastern region of Tzizi Ouzou, the country's leading dailies reported.

''Sofiane is a big, big fish. In a way, he was the real boss of the organization in Algeria,'' Eshorouk's editor and security specialist Anis Rahmani told Reuters, adding that '' he was a man of action not a man of religion.'' Two other rebels were also killed alongside him during a clash with government troops at the check point, El Watan and Eshorouk newspapers added.

Both were also suspected to be involved in preparing suicide attacks, said the newspapers.

Last month, 60 people were killed in bomb attacks in Algeria, which included an attempt to assassinate President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Seventy-five people died in political violence during the same period and 369 people since the beginning of this year, according to a Reuters count based on newspaper reports.

Algeria is emerging from more than a decade of conflict that began when the military-backed government scrapped 1992 legislative elections a radical Islamic party was poised to win.

The bloodshed has subsided in recent years and last year the government freed more than 2,000 former Islamist guerrillas under an amnesty designed to put an end to the conflict.

But a surge of violence began when Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat guerrillas aligned themselves with al Qaeda in January and vowed attacks on the government and foreign interests.

Analysts say the introduction of suicide bombers, more lethal bomb-making technology, fund-raising from protection rackets and smuggling, and an increasingly sophisticated Web-based publicity machine have helped the rebels stay active.

REUTERS SG BD1652

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