Gunmen yesterday assassinated Mohamed Boudiaf, the head of the ruling council of Algeria. The leader was shot while in the eastern city of Annaba to give a speech, the official state radio said. He is the first head of state assassinated in the Arab world since Islamic fundamentalists killed President Anwar Sadat of Egypt in 1981.

Boudiaf was president of the five-man, military-backed High State Committee, which took power to block the expected victory by Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria's first free parliamentary elections after 30 years of Marxist rule.

Fundamentalist guerrillas have retaliated for the crackdown - which included the detentions of thousands of Islamic Salvation Front supporters - by staging hit-and-run attacks that have killed up to 100 police officers and soldiers.

Boudiaf was trying to bring together the divided nation and was making his second trip to the provinces to rally the population when he was reported assassinated.

The official APS news agency said earlier that gunfire broke out as Boudiaf arrived at the House of Art and Culture in the port city 300 miles east of Algiers. It said there was "total confusion" in the area. Helicopters were reported hovering over the city.

Boudiaf had been a leader in Algeria's 1954 revolt against French rule, but fell out with his fellow revolutionaries after independence, was briefly imprisoned, and spent 26 years in exile in Morocco. He returned in January to head the state council, a national coalition spanning all political groups except the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which was outlawed.

Boudiaf's appointment came after authorities canceled the second round of parliamentary elections, which the Islamic fundamentalists had been expected to win. They had dominated first-round balloting in December, Algeria's first free national parliament elections.

Former President Chadli Benjedid had ended the one-party rule of the National Liberation Front that governed Algeria for almost three decades after winning independence from France.

The FIS took a commanding lead and seemed certain to win a majority in parliament if President Chadli had not been replaced and Round 2 voting canceled.

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