Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni described the operation, 300km east of capital Algiers, as a "success". He did not name the group to which the dead belonged, but local newspapers said they all belonged to the outlawed Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).

Previous press reports 10 days ago said that up to 150 hardliners had been killed as troops combed the area.

Local newspapers said the GSPC, with suspected links to Usama bin Ladin's al-Qaida, had organised a members' meeting in the barely accessible hills.

The GSPC together with the other hardline Armed Islamic Group (GIA) have been battling the Algerian government for more than a decade in an attempt to establish an Islamic republic.

Both the GSPC and the GIA have refused to lay down their arms. Algeria's civil war has so far claimed 150,000 lives.

The conflict has claimed about 700 lives so far this year.