At least 19 killed in clashes at Congo army base

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo Wed Jun 6, 2012 9:31am EDT

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Congolese soldiers and rebels clashed at an army base in eastern Congo, the government and a rebel said on Wednesday, killing at least 19 people in the latest outbreak of violence that has forced tens of thousands to flee their homes.

The government said the attack had been carried out by Mai Mai fighters, linked to ex-rebels who were at one point integrated into the army but deserted in recent weeks to protest Kinshasa's decision to arrest a renegade general, Bosco Ntaganda.

Their uprising is believed to have dragged in gunmen from neighboring Rwanda, complicating fragile relations between the two nations. Clashes in the last two months have forced over 100,000 people to flee their homes.

The attack by Mai Mai fighters loyal to General Kakule Sikula Lafontaine on Tuesday morning targeted an army base in the Lubero territory of North Kivu province, government spokesman Lambert Mende said.

"They attacked our barracks and killed some of our military personnel," Mende said, adding that 11 Congolese soldiers and 8 rebels were killed.

Lafontaine told Reuters that his men had suffered one fatality and killed 31 soldiers in the clashes, adding that his forces had seized ammunition and arms, including a mortar.

Reuters could not independently confirm the casualties.

He said the soldiers had attacked the rebels' positions in Kasiki, in North Kivu. "But we pushed them back as far as their base," Lafontaine said by telephone from Lubero territory.

Lafontaine - known as Mai Mai Lafontaine - is a longstanding rebel and former head of the PARECO armed group.

Earlier this year he launched a new movement called UPCP with Colonel Albert Kahasha, one of hundreds of soldiers who mutinied after the Democratic Republic of Congo said it would arrest Ntaganda, wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

In a separate speech on national television on Tuesday night, Mende said that 200 soldiers loyal to Ntaganda had been killed since the rebellion started at the end of March, and more than 370 have surrendered, including 25 Rwandan citizens.

Rwanda has denied suggestions by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch that elements within its military have been providing weapons and recruits for the mutineers, known as M23.

(Editing by Bate Felix and Alessandra Rizzo)

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