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Thousands flee fighting in eastern Congo

GOMA, Congo (Reuters) - Thousands of civilians fled renewed fighting between Tutsi-dominated rebels, army troops and pro-government militia in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on Saturday, the U.N. peacekeeping mission said.

Clashes erupted before dawn on Saturday in the town of Bunagana on the Ugandan border as the Mai Mai militia tried to wrest the key supply route from rebels loyal to renegade Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda.

Government troops, meanwhile, battled Nkunda’s forces in the nearby town of Bukima, to the west of Bunagana, officials at the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUC) said.

“It was fairly serious. The fighting started early this morning and ended late this afternoon,” said Major P.K. Tiwari, MONUC military spokesman in North Kivu, adding it was still unclear who had attacked first.

Villagers from Bunagana and nearby settlements of Jomba, Runyoni and Bweza poured into Rutshuru, the government-held local administrative seat, around 8 a.m. (0600 GMT).

“What I saw was horrendous. It was raining. They didn’t know where to go. Three women gave birth while they were fleeing,” said Sylvie Van Den Wildenberg, MONUC spokeswoman in North Kivu.

“The humanitarian consequences of whatever is happening there are very serious.”

Around 370,000 people have already fled fighting between government soldiers, Nkunda loyalists, local militias and Rwandan Hutu rebels since the beginning of the year.

Congo’s army has been battling Nkunda since August when his men abandoned a January peace deal and pulled out of government brigades. Nkunda led around 4,000 soldiers into the bush in 2004, saying he would protect Congo’s Tutsi minority.

He accuses the government of supporting the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Rwandan rebel group including ex-Hutu militia and Rwandan soldiers responsible for that country’s 1994 genocide. Congo denies this.

Nkunda’s military spokesman Major Seraphin Mirindi said the rebels had been attacked on Saturday by FDLR fighters.

“They attacked us. Now our clean-up operations are under way. We’re pushing them back, and they are losing many men,” he told Reuters by telephone.

The head of the local Mai-Mai militia, which has carried out operations with the FDLR against Nkunda, said his forces near Bunagana had come under attack around 3 a.m. (0100 GMT).

Mai Mai leader, General Kasereka Kabamba, said his fighters had taken control of Bunagana, but U.N. officials denied this.

Following historic elections last year, President Joseph Kabila promised to pacify Congo’s troubled east. In a press conference in North Kivu’s provincial capital Goma on Wednesday, he said the army had received a green light to begin preparing military operations to disarm Nkunda’s fighters.