Fierce fighting in Congo

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The Independent Online

After weeks of being bombarded by government forces, Congolese rebels said today that they had lost a key northwestern town in the fiercest fighting in months.

After weeks of being bombarded by government forces, Congolese rebels said today that they had lost a key northwestern town in the fiercest fighting in months.

The rebels could no longer resist helicopter and river assaults at Bokungu, 800 kilometers (500 miles) northeast of the capital, Kinshasa, and yesterday surrendered the town, rebel spokesman Kin-Kiey Mulumba said.

Zimbabwean troops aiding Congolese President Laurent Kabila said they planned to keep pounding rebel lines until they broke through to save at least 700 Zimbabwean soldiers surrounded by the insurgents at Ikela airport, 120 kilometers (75 miles) southeast of Bokungu.

The government and rebels signed a peace accord in August that was supposed to establish a cease-fire and pave the way for the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers and the withdrawal of foreign troops.

The agreement was signed between the rebels, their backers in Rwanda and Uganda, and Kabila and his allies in Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia.

Since then, the rebels and the government have regularly accused each other of attacks, troop movements and violations of the cease-fire.

So far, about 70 of 90 unarmed military observers ordered to Congo by the U.N. Security Council have been deployed inside the country. They are working alongside a dozen cease-fire monitors from the Organization of African Unity. None are near the fighting in northwestern Congo.

"Now, everybody will know that Kabila has violated the cease-fire," Mulumba said, speaking on the telephone from the eastern rebel stronghold in Goma.

He said the rebels had established a new defense line outside Bokungu, and would fight to prevent the government and their Zimbabwean allies from reaching Ikela.

In the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, army spokesman Col. Chancellor Diya said Thursday that his forces were using the air force and gunboats against the rebels. Diya claimed that according to the peace accord, Ikela belongs to the government side because they controlled the town when the agreement was concluded.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke was expected in Kinshasa and the Rwandan and Ugandan capitals next week as part of an African tour to strengthen the fragile peace agreement.

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