updated 1/24/2007 3:27:41 PM ET 2007-01-24T20:27:41

Rebels in eastern Congo have agreed to stop killing mountain gorillas and allow government rangers to restart patrols, conservationists said Wednesday.

Earlier this month, rebels allegedly killed and ate two silverback mountain gorillas, according to field reports collected by London-based Africa Conservation Fund.

Only about 700 mountain gorillas are left in the world, 380 of them spread across a volcanic mountain range in Central Africa that crosses the borders of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. Silverbacks are the older adult males of the species.

A rebel leader, Colonel Makenga, agreed to stop the killings and to allow patrols after a meeting on Tuesday with park wardens, conservationists, U.N. officials and Congo army representatives, the group said.

“We weren’t expecting to succeed given the overwhelming odds against,” Paulin Ngobobo, a senior park warden, said in a statement. “However, this is just another small step. We must keep up international pressure, to ensure that this does not happen again next week, next month, or next year.”

Congo’s Virunga National Park — where the gorilla corpses were found — has been hit by poachers and loggers for more than a decade.

The area has long been occupied by various militia groups, including forces loyal to Laurent Nkunda — a warlord who recently agreed to stop fighting the government in exchange for a promise that he will not be pursued for war crimes, according to the army.

But the region has remained violent. On Tuesday, skirmishes broke out between rival factions of Nkunda’s troops. At least one civilian was killed and two others wounded, according to army and U.N. officials.

Congo is working to re-establish democratic rule after a 1998-2002 war that pulled in armies of more than six African nations. The country held its first democratic elections in more than four decades last year, but the government has struggled to keep control in the east, which has long been the lawless domain of gangs and thugs.

Rangers assigned to protect Congo’s national parks regularly risk confrontation and death. Some 97 Virunga National Park rangers have died on duty since 1996, according to Africa Conservation Fund.

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