Islamist extremists attacked an army post and killed at least 13 soldiers watching the Algerian president's televised speech promising reforms, security officials said Saturday.
Two militants in the group were killed by soldiers at the post in Kabyle, some 80 miles east of Algiers, the officials said Saturday. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak to the press.
On Saturday, security forces swept areas including the Yakourene forest, a hideout of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, in a search for other suspects, the officials said.
It was the deadliest attack on security forces since July 2009, when at least 14 soldiers were reported killed in an ambush on a military convoy in Damous, near the northern coastal city of Tipaza.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced constitutional and electoral reforms Friday night "aimed at deepening the democratic process" amid upheavals in neighboring North African countries. In February, he lifted a 19-year-old state of emergency put in place at the start of a brutal Islamist insurgency. An estimated 200,000 people — insurgents, civilians and soldiers — were killed after violence erupted in 1992, when the army canceled the country's first multiparty elections and stepped in to prevent a likely victory by a Muslim fundamentalist party.
Security forces have brought calm to much of the country, but sporadic attacks by insurgents continue, particularly in the mountainous Kabyle region, a stronghold for al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which was officially formed in 2006 from the remnants of an insurgency movement, the Salafist Group for Call and Combat.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but most attacks in Algeria are blamed on al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
The attack on the army post, located between the towns of Azazga and Yakourene, came as most soldiers watched the speech by Bouteflika, several security officials said. There was a long clash and reinforcements were sent in from Tizi Ouzou, capital of the Kabyle region, the officials said.
New challenges to reconciliation
Bouteflika, in office for 12 years, has made re-establishing peace a mark of his presidency, luring terrorists back into society with a reconciliation program.
Now, new fissures are reappearing as citizens hold scattered but regular strikes and protests, worrying officials who fear that popular uprisings in neighboring Tunisia and Libya could spread.
The 74-year-old Bouteflika promised to reform the constitution and the electoral process and ease pressure on the media in his Friday night speech.
He said a constitutional commission that includes all political tendencies and constitutional law experts would be set up and charged with making proposals for change — to be adopted later by referendum or a parliamentary vote. He also promised changes in the electoral system so it conforms with the "most modern norms of representative democracies so that the people can express ... their most intimate convictions."
Without lifting the state's grip on television, Bouteflika said a variety of thematic channels would be offered and, more significantly, he vowed to do away with criminal penalties that have limited the independence of newspaper journalists.
However, the promises of reforms were vague with no specific time elements or other guidelines, and the frailness of the president, who has been ailing and was at times barely audible, was among the most striking elements of the speech.