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Congo rebels take Brazzaville airport

Palace

Whereabouts of President Pascal Lissouba uncertain

October 14, 1997
Web posted at: 2:32 p.m. EDT (1832 GMT)

In this story:

BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (CNN) -- Former military leader Denis Sassou-Nguesso's Cobra militia attacked the presidential palace in the capital city of Brazzaville on Tuesday after capturing the international airport, witnesses said.

With the battle for the capital of the oil-producing former French colony heating up, hundreds of residents of the government-held southern suburbs fled or lined up to flee in dugout canoes for Kinshasa, capital of the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire).

The whereabouts of President Pascal Lissouba, Sassou-Nguesso's rival in a bloody four-month power struggle, were not immediately clear.

In Kinshasa itself, witnesses said four shells from Brazzaville crashed into a residential area, seriously wounding a Belgian woman.

Sassou-Nguesso's militia was in control of Brazzaville's main airport terminal, the control tower and the heavily disputed runway -- strategic and symbolic targets in the conflict.

"We retook the airport three days ago," said a Cobra commander at the site of what remains of the airport.

Witnesses reported clouds of smoke rising from around the riverside presidential palace and the sound of heavy machine gun fire from the area.

Civilians flee

The southern suburbs, particularly the Bacongo neighborhood stronghold of Prime Minister Bernard Kolelas, have been a haven for civilians fleeing fighting that has devastated other parts of the city.

Militia

Relief workers say thousands of inhabitants of Bacongo and other civilian enclaves had made the short two-kilometer (one-mile) river journey to Kinshasa in the past two days.

The conflict, which began on June 5 when Lissouba soldiers surrounded Sassou-Nguesso's home in a pre-election crackdown on private militia, has escalated since Sassou-Nguesso's forces launched an offensive inside and outside Brazzaville on October 7.

The conflict has killed several thousand people in Brazzaville, many of them civilians hit by indiscriminate shelling. Mediation efforts by neighboring Gabon and the United Nations have foundered on differences over power sharing.

Angola involved?

Fighting has spread to the south of the country, sending shockwaves through the port and oil capital of Pointe-Noire.

Shelling

Persistent reports say that Angolan government troops have intervened in the south on Sassou's side. Other reports suggest that Angola's former civil war rivals, UNITA, are fighting alongside Lissouba's forces.

Last weekend, Kolelas' previously neutral Ninja militia joined in on Lissouba's side in a bid to drive Sassou-Nguesso's forces back from the airport.

Sassou-Nguesso loyalists accuse Lissouba forces of targeting Kinshasa to draw President Laurent Kabila and his Democratic Republic of the Congo into the conflict.

Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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