The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) posted a statement on its internet site claiming to have exploded bombs as the soldiers' road convoy went past on Friday in the Batna region, 430km east of the capital.

  

Its fighters then opened fire with machine guns, killing 10 soldiers instantly, it said.

  

It did not know the number of wounded.

  
If confirmed, the incident would be the worst suffered by the
army and security forces since 3 January, when 18 soldiers and communal guardsmen were killed in an ambush by the group at Biskra, south of Algiers.

 

However, the Algerian government has confirmed the death of only four soldiers.

 

The rebels fighting for an Islamic state launched a holy war in 1992 after authorities cancelled parliamentary elections an Islamic party was set to win.
   
Still dangerous

 

More than 150,000 people have since died, according to human-rights groups. But violence has fallen sharply in recent years.
   
Despite the arrest of its number two operative Amari Said last October, the GSPC is considered still the most dangerous and organised of Algeria's rebel Islamic forces.

 

"There are at this moment some pockets of terrorists from the

GSPC that we are going to put out of commission"

Yzid Zerhuni,
Algerian Interior Minister

The GSPC has between 300 and 500 men, many former combatants from the war in Afghanistan, Algerian police chief Ali Tunsi said.
  
The group's leader Nabil Sahrawi and four others were killed by
the army at the end of June 2004.

 

Sahrawi has since been replaced by Abu Musab Abd al-Wadud, whose real name is Abd al-malik Durkdal.

  

In an interview with an Algerian newspaper in January, Algerian Interior Minister Yzid Zerhuni promised to soon put an end to the GSPC.

  

"There are at this moment some pockets of terrorists from the GSPC that we are going to put out of commission," said Zerhouni.