More Than 400 Reportedly Killed in Worst Bloodletting of Algeria's 6-Year-Old Islamic InsurgencyBy RACHID KHIARI

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) _ Gangs armed with knives, axes, hoes and shovels methodically slaughtered 412 peasants in four poor western villages in a night of horror, the worst massacre of a nearly 6-year-old Muslim insurgency.

``We're almost done here,'' one gang leader was heard saying on a walkie-talkie during the overnight attacks on the hillside villages Tuesday, the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Survivors of the attack, first reported in the Algerian media today, said they fled into the darkness while the gangs stabbed and hacked their victims.

The massacre started at sunset just as the inhabitants were ending their daily Ramadan fast. In violence that lasted until dawn, the militants slit people's throats, cut off their heads and bashed children to death against walls, villagers said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The killings took place in four hamlets around the town of Relizane, 180 miles west of Algiers. Hospital sources, rescue workers and cemetery workers confirmed 176 dead in Khourba, 113 in Sahnoun, 73 in El Abadel and 50 in Ouled Taieb.

The total death toll of 412 was first reported by the independent daily Liberte. Government radio reported 78 villagers killed and 68 wounded, though officials figures are usually lower _ part of an apparent effort to play down the seriousness of the militants' attacks.

The aftermath of Tuesday night's attacks showed how the gangs had grouped their victims together before killing them.

``I pulled out 50 mutilated bodies from one house and 30 from another,'' said Hadj Mohammed, a villager in Khourba, home to about 200 families.

Rescue workers stitched slashed survivors back together, or quickly buried the victims in accordance with Muslim law.

``I can't get rid of the smell of blood,'' said a nurse, her blouse splattered with gore, before breaking out in tears. She spoke on condition of anonymity.

Many surviving families planned to move to the nearby port of Oran.

``Leaving is better than dying,'' said villager Amar Meziani. ``I'm leaving everything here, my house, my crops, what's left of my livestock. To go where? I don't know, but I can't stay here.

``I'm too old to carry a weapon. I'll return when it's calm.''

There was no claim of responsibility for the attack, but suspicion fell on the Armed Islamic Group, the insurgency's most violent movement, which has claimed responsibility for past bombings and massacres.

Known by its French initials GIA, the group seeks to bring down the military-backed government of President Liamine Zeroual and install a strict Islamic regime.

The insurgency, which has left more than 75,000 dead, intensifies every year around Ramadan as militants step up what they see as a holy war.

Zeroual and other officials have insisted in recent months that the continued violence was only ``residual terrorism,'' and the army has attacked militant strongholds in rural Algeria.

The conflict began after the government in January 1992 canceled second-round legislative elections the Islamic Salvation Front was expected to win. The Front had capitalized on voter anger with high unemployment and corruption in the petroleum-rich North African nation.

Villagers said the gangs Tuesday were dressed in baggy gray Afghan-style pants _ the sign of the most violent fighters of the insurgency. The fighters are reputed to have learned their tactics during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

The two biggest massacres before the attacks near Relizane took place in August in two villages south of Algiers, another region frequently hit by the Armed Islamic Group. About 250 people were killed at Bentalha, and between 200 and 300 people were killed days later in the village of Raisi.

More than 400 people were killed during Ramadan last year, and more than 300 killed in the two weeks leading up to this year's holiday, which began Tuesday.

Ramadan marks God's revelation of the Koran, Islam's holy book, to the Prophet Mohammed some 1,400 years ago. During the holy month, Muslims abstain from food, drink, smoking and sex during daylight hours as an act of sacrifice and purification.