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Algerian army kills seven militants in al Qaeda stronghold

ALGIERS (Reuters) - The Algerian army killed seven Islamist militants in their stronghold east of Algiers, the defense ministry said on Wednesday, as government forces stepped up operations against suspected al Qaeda-linked fighters.

It was the largest government offensive against militants since an audacious assault on a desert gas plant in January in which 37 foreigners died.

Four militants were killed in an ambush in the Tizi Ouzou province and three others died in a separate operation in the nearby Boumerdes province on Monday night, the ministry said in a statement carried on the official APS news agency.

The two mountainous provinces are where the leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel, is believed to be based, but there was no indication he had been caught up in the clashes.

Six assault rifles and "an important quantity" of ammunition were also seized.

Tizi Ouzou is about 100 km (62 miles) from the capital Algiers. The operation was not linked to a government offensive in neighboring Tunisia against more than 30 militants suspected of having links with the al Qaeda network.

On Tuesday, a source at the Tunisian Interior Ministry said one of the groups being hunted there was made up of nine Tunisian and 11 Algerian fighters.

Algeria is emerging from a war with Islamists that killed an estimated 200,000 people since the early 1990s.

But authorities are concerned about the flow of arms and organized crime across its borders with neighbors Mali, Libya and Tunisia, all of which face significant Islamist rebel threats of their own.

"The Popular National Army reiterates its firm and irrevocable commitment to continue, without interruption, the fight against terrorism against the country," the defense ministry statement said.

(Reporting By Hamid Ould Ahmed; editing by Mike Collett-White)

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