The Liberté newspaper reported on Thursday that at least 300 GSPC fighters based in the outback around Algeria are involved in the mass surrender.

Talks between the fighters and the authorities have already resulted in the "installation of cantonment sites" for disarmed fighters, of whom 70 have "already discreetly gone to Medea", 70 kilometres south of the Mediterranean coastal capital Algiers, said the paper.

"The loss of their main members, pressure exerted by the security forces and open warfare between factions of the GSPC have resulted in a higher surrender rate," said Liberté.

"These surrenders will also allow radical factions to be identified and decisions to be taken, because the government will strike even harder against those who continue to sow terror through armed violence," said the paper, quoting observers.

The GSPC is the larger of two main Islamist groups in Algeria, where the government has been engaged against Muslim fighters in a civil war that has claimed some 150,000 lives since 1992.

'Al-Qaida links'

The GSPC was created in 1998 as a splinter group from the other movement, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). It has been linked by Washington and the press in Algeria to Usama bin Ladin's al-Qaeda network.

Bouteflika said he would allow ex-
FIS members to form a new party

Liberté did not specify whether the GSPC fighters' surrender was related to an amnesty declared by President Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika in 1999, under which thousands of armed Islamist fighters have already laid down their arms and one armed radical group, the Islamic Salvation Army, was disbanded.

The Islamic Salvation Army was the armed branch of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the political party which was poised to win elections in January 1992. The army cancelled those elections, sparking the civil war, and the FIS was banned.

The GSPC and GIA initially rejected Bouteflika's national reconciliation programme.

Decreasing violence

Since the amnesty was announced, there has been a sharp decrease in violence, a factor believed to have contributed to the president's resounding victory in elections on 8 April, when he garnered 85% of the vote and was re-elected to a second term.

The president has said he plans to allow former FIS leaders to form a new party if they renounce violence and give up their stated goal of setting up an Islamic state in Algeria.

The FIS has congratulated Bouteflika on his election victory and asked him to organise a national congress for reconciliation that would bring together all parties involved in the crisis since 1992, including FIS leaders.

Since the start of the year, 140 people have been killed in Algeria's civil war. The toll marks a sharp downturn from the first four months of last year, when more than 360 people were killed in unrest in the north African country.