Congo army, rebels clash in worst fighting for months

KINSHASA Fri Nov 16, 2012 3:28pm EST

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KINSHASA Nov 16 (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo forces have repulsed two waves of attacks by rebel fighters near the eastern city of Goma, the army said on Friday, in some of the worst fighting seen in the central African region for months.

Both sides gave conflicting casualty figures from the clashes, which started early on Thursday morning and continued into Friday near the town of Kibumba, 30 km (18 miles) north of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province.

The area - scarred by nearly two decades of bloodshed - has been swept by further upheaval since April, when hundreds of soldiers mutinied against the government and formed the so-called M23 rebel group.

"They've been attacking our positions again, but we've held them ... For the moment the situation is calm," General Lucien Bahuma, military commander for the region, told Reuters.

North Kivu's provincial government claimed dozens of rebel fighters had been killed but M23 spokesman Vianney Kazarama denied the report saying rebels had only suffered some injuries and had, in turn, killed two army officers in the fighting.

Kazarama accused the government of striking first on Thursday morning and said the group had been defending itself. He added that the rebels had made significant advances but were not planning to march on the city of Goma.

"That's not our objective, our objective is that the government accepts negotiations, we want dialogue," he said.

The uprising has risked destabilising the whole region after UN experts said in a report that Rwanda was backing the rebels, claims strongly denied by Kigali.

An expert panel has urged a U.N. Security Council committee to impose sanctions on Rwanda's defence minister and other Rwandan officials the panel linked to the insurgency , U.N. diplomats said on Friday.

More than three quarters of a million people have been forced to flee their homes since the fighting began, and regional efforts to find a solution have so far failed. (Reporting by Jonny Hogg; Editing by David Lewis and Myra MacDonald)

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