Algeria's army bombed three four-wheel-drive vehicles deep in the desert on Thursday near the North African country's southern border with Mali, El Watan newspaper reported.

Fighters retaliated by firing a rocket launcher at the helicopter, wounding an army officer who died en route to hospital, the paper said.

Defence officials did not respond to telephone calls seeking comment on Tuesday, a national holiday in Algeria.

US training exercise

The bombing came just days after the US military ended a three-week anti-terrorism exercise with African troops aimed at sharpening defences against fighters based in north and west Africa, including Algeria.

Some 700 US troops and 2100 soldiers from nine African nations - including Algeria and Mali - conducted mock patrols, target practice and parachute drops from C-130 transport planes with hundreds of African soldiers.

President Bouteflika says the
insurgency is almost quelled

US officials have said that as many as 25% of the foreign fighters in Iraq hail from North Africa and that a small number of fighters are returning home, trained in guerrilla tactics and bomb-making.

The fighters targeted on Thursday are believed to belong to a branch of Algeria's Salafist Group for Call and Combat, or GSPC, El Watan said.

The GSPC - said to have links to al-Qaida - is the most structured group among Algerian Islamic insurgents battling the state since 1992 in a bid to topple the government.