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Fighting flares in Congo's east

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KINSHASA, Congo (Reuters) -- Fighters loyal to a dissident general have attacked army positions in eastern Congo with small arms and heavy weapons, the government and the U.N. said on Saturday.

The attack, after months of relative calm in Congo's turbulent east, came amid tensions in the capital Kinshasa where supporters of a former rebel chief are protesting President Joseph Kabila's victory in last month's presidential runoff.

"Our military positions in Sake have been coming under attack from (rebel general Laurent) Nkunda since early this morning. Our brigade there is fighting back," Congolese Interior Minister Denis Kalume told Reuters on Saturday.

U.N. sources confirmed the early morning attack on Sake, which is the front line between rebel and government forces, 20 km (13 miles) west of the provincial capital of North Kivu, close to the border with Rwanda.

One U.N. official said most of the local population had fled after the killing of a member of the Tutsi ethnic group who supported Nkunda raised tensions.

A U.N. military source said an integrated brigade of Congo's army, made up of different factions from the country's 1998-2003 civil war, had come under attack in Sake from fixed positions.

"Small arms as well as heavy weapons, including RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) and mortars, are being used," said the source. "We have patrols on the ground and should be able to contain it."

The conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo continues to displace tens of thousands of people, despite a 2003 peace deal which officially ended the war and paved the way for this year's historic elections.

The five-year war caused a humanitarian catastrophe which killed an estimated 4 million people, mainly through hunger and disease. Its effects are still being felt and more than 1,000 people die each day in Congo, making it the world's worst humanitarian disaster, the U.N. estimates.

Many of the human rights abuses are committed by the poorly paid and ill-disciplined army. On Friday, U.N. investigators announced the discovery of a mass grave in an army camp in eastern Congo holding around 30 victims, including women and children, who appeared to have been recently executed.

This year's U.N.-backed elections, Congo's first free polls in more than 40 years, were aimed at cementing peace in the vast central African country.

However, supporters of former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba rioted in Kinshasa this week after he refused to accept defeat in last month's runoff and accused Kabila of "massive fraud". The Supreme Court will continue hearing his appeal on Saturday.



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