By Pierre-Yves Julien
Algiers - Islamist rebels ambushed and killed 18 Algerian police and a civilian, sources said, as neighbouring Mali said it had killed about 20 suspected al-Qaeda fighters from a cell believed to have executed a British hostage.
Details of the ambush, the most deadly on government forces in the past six months, emerged through local sources but were later confirmed to the Algerian APS news agency by an official.
The military convoy was returning to barracks at Bordj Bou Arreridj, south-east of Algiers, after escorting Chinese construction workers to a motorway project, when it came under attack on Wednesday evening.
One newspaper, Echourouk, reported that the rebels set off two roadside bombs and then opened fire on the gendarmes, killing them and then stealing their weapons and uniforms.
A major security operation was launched in the region, with troops deployed on the ground to search for the perpetrators, backed by helicopters.
The Chinese group CITIC-CRCC has a contract to build a section of motorway from Algiers to Bordj Bou Arreridj.
The attack was the biggest to date by Islamists in Algeria, who call themselves al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), since the suicide bombing of a police academy killed 48 people in August 2008.
That blast ripped through a crowd of young people, some accompanied by relatives, who were gathering at the academy to take part in an entry test.
Suicide attacks, never previously practised by Islamist groups in Algeria, have since ceased, the rebels instead switching to isolated gun and bomb attacks on army patrols.
Meanwhile, Malian security forces said they had killed around 20 suspected AQIM fighters in a raid near the Algeria border targeting a cell thought to have executed a British hostage.
The attack on Tuesday at Garn-Akassa, west of the Tessalit oasis in Mali's north, was the first time the army specifically targeted Al-Qaeda members on Malian turf.
AQIM claims close ties to Al-Qaeda and emerged out of the Algerian fundamentalist Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.
The Islamist fighters have sought to extend their range into nations on the southern edge of the Sahara and have claimed several attacks in the region.
The Malian army said on Wednesday that it has been conducting military operations in the area for the past week, but did not mention AQIM directly.
Two weeks ago, sources in the Malian interior ministry said they would start a "ruthless battle against terrorist groups."
The hardline stance came after US-based monitoring group SITE Intelligence said al-Qaeda's north African branch had posted an online statement saying it killed British hostage Edwin Dyer on May 31.
The execution marked the first time that al-Qaeda's north African branch had killed a Western hostage, observers said.
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was re-elected in April for a third mandate, began a policy of national reconciliation in 1999 after more than a decade of Islamist violence which killed at least 150 000 people in the north African country.
Thousands of hardline Islamists have since handed themselves in and Bouteflika hinted during his election campaign at a possible referendum aimed at granting a general amnesty for those who give up their arms. - Sapa-AFP