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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Fighting continues in Congo for 4th day

SAKE, Congo - U.N.-backed government forces battled renegade troops loyal to a local warlord in a fourth day of fighting Tuesday in eastern Congo, where a U.N. helicopter strafed hills and gunfire echoed as hundreds of people fled the area.

Ending such violence in the country's lawless east is a major challenge for President Joseph Kabila, who was declared winner of Congo's landmark presidential ballot on Monday by the Supreme Court.

Kabila's challenger, Jean-Pierre Bemba, conceded defeat but denounced the verdict and said he would continue his struggle politically through the opposition to "preserve peace and save the country from sinking into chaos and violence."

The latest skirmish began Saturday after forces loyal to former army general Laurent Nkunda attacked Sake, a small town on the northern tip of Lake Kivu about 18 miles west of Goma.

By Monday, Nkunda's fighters were pushed back into hills a few miles east of the town, but gunfire still echoed through the area Tuesday as sporadic battles continued. A U.N. helicopter fired into the hills at Nkunda fighters dug in there.

Hundreds of people carrying mattresses and suitcases filled the road between Sake and Goma. Sake's population is estimated at 12,000, but the town was mostly deserted.

The Congolese army said at least three of its soldiers died and about 50 were wounded. The body of one Congolese soldier was seen in Sake, and those of three fighters identified by army troops as Nkunda's men were seen outside town.

U.N. spokesman Kemal Saiki said a delegation of Congolese and U.N. officials had arrived in Goma and was headed to Sake to broker a cease-fire.

Nkunda, a former general, quit Congo's army and launched a low-level rebellion after the war ended, alleging the transition to democracy was flawed and excluded the minority Tutsi community. Nkunda controls thousands of fighters and claims the loyalty of two army brigades.

The U.N., which now has about 800 peacekeepers in Sake, entered the conflict Monday after coming under fire by Nkunda's troops as they attempted to advance toward Goma. The U.N. has about 17,500 peacekeepers in the Central African country trying to maintain calm as Congo tries to make the transition to democracy after a 1998-2002 war and decades of dictatorship.

Although a peace deal ended the broader war, the government has struggled for years to gain control of the vast, lawless east, which has been periodically wracked by violence from Congolese militiamen and Rwandan rebels who fled the 1994 genocide.

In Kinshasa on Monday, the Supreme Court confirmed provisional results from the Oct. 29 presidential runoff that gave Kabila 58 percent of votes, compared with about 42 percent for former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba. The court rejected charges of vote fraud brought by Bemba.

Congo has been on a bumpy four-year transition toward democracy.

Kabila will become Congo's first freely elected president since independence from Belgium in 1960.

In eastern Congo, meanwhile, the Mount Nyamulagira volcano spewed lava Tuesday for a second day, but did not appear to threaten the provincial capital, Goma, which was destroyed by another volcano four years ago.
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