Ten suspected Islamists and three soldiers were killed in a fierce gunbattle in the Sahara Desert when a convoy of heavily armed militants was attacked by the Algerian army, officials said on Saturday.
The gunmen, in a caravan of several 4-by-4 vehicles crossing the desert, took refuge in remote terrain near the Great Erg, the world's largest sand dune, when they saw they were being trailed by the army and special gendarmerie police forces in the early hours Friday, the officials said.
They fought off the security forces, killing three and wounding two others, said an elected official in the town of Bechar 985 kilometers (610 miles) southwest of Algiers, the capital. A security chief in Bechar confirmed the information.
He said the security forces, supported by army helicopters, killed 10 militants, including three who appeared not to be Algerian nationals. The officials gave no reports of arrests. Authorities seized several heavy machine guns and large quantities of ammunition and medicine after the clash, they said.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because Algerian emergency laws forbid discussing ongoing security matters. Several independent Algerian newspapers also reported the clash on Saturday. There was no government comment.
While Islamist militants have claimed multiple bomb attacks in northern Algeria, the south of the country has largely been spared the violence. But many security experts believe that Algeria's al-Qaida-linked militants use the sprawling southern deserts as rear bases and for trafficking weapons, drugs and illegal migrants over the region's porous borders with sub-Saharan African countries such as Mali and Niger.
The militant group, known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb also has been blamed for several kidnappings of Western tourists in the desert over the last few years.
Its fighters are a leftover from a civil war between radical Islamists and government forces that killed up to 200,000 people in Algeria during the 1990s. The group officially merged with al-Qaida in 2006 and has continued to regularly target government forces and foreigners in recent years.