Rebels and the army fought one of their fiercest battles in eastern Congo this year on Thursday, exchanging machine-gun and mortar fire all day outside a national park that is home to some of the world's last mountain gorillas.
U.N.-funded Radio Okapi reported at least four people were killed and several wounded. At least one of the dead was an army soldier, it said. The U.N. mission told the British Broadcasting Corp. that 18 rebels were injured.
Despite a January cease-fire deal, rebels led by Laurent Nkunda fought army units in the village of Matebe, as well as Gasiza and Kalomba, both located on the outskirts of Virunga National Park, U.N. spokesman Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich said.
"Almost the entire population of the area has fled," Dietrich said, adding that army forces had put attack helicopters into the skies and were reinforcing their positions.
Fighters occupy part of gorilla park
Army spokesman Col. Delphin Kahimbi confirmed the army was organizing a counteroffensive. He blamed rebels for starting the latest conflict. Rebels could not be reached for comment.
Nkunda's fighters have occupied the southern sector of gorilla-inhabited Virunga National Park for about 12 months, keeping rangers from patrolling the area.
Emmanuel de Merode, who directs Virunga National Park for the Congolese Wildlife Authority, said in a statement that the "latest escalation of the conflict undermines our efforts to resume our work in the gorilla sector."
"It is almost one year to the day since this conflict started, but we are as determined as ever to get back in," Merode said, adding that mortar and grenade explosions have boomed around the park since before dawn. "It is critical that we know the status of the mountain gorillas."
Though sporadic gunfights have broken out in North Kivu province this year, much of the area has been calm since a January peace deal ended a wave of major skirmishes in the same region late last year.
"The fighting has been tied for weeks to the desire to control certain areas of land by one party or another," Dietrich said. Nkunda's rebels "are trying to expand their zone of influence" and the army is trying to stop them, he said.
Nation still recovering from '94 genocide
Congo held its first democratic elections in more than four decades in 2006, and is still coping with the effects of a 1998-2002 war and Rwanda's 1994 genocide, which saw millions of hungry refugees — including Rwandan militias who remain today — spill across the border. Despite its vast mineral wealth, most people remain deeply poor and desperate, and the gorillas in the Virung reserve are competing with local villagers for land.
Nkunda's fighters, believed to have close ties to neighboring Rwanda, first rose up against the government after the broader war ended in 2002. He claims they fight to protect minority Tutsis from Hutus and other groups.
Only about 700 mountain gorillas remain in the world, an estimated 380 of them in a range of volcanoes straddling Congo's borders with Uganda and Rwanda. Only 72 are believed to live on the Congo side of the border. Ten of them were killed last year.
Nkunda's rebels have been accused by wildlife officials of attacking gorillas in the past, but since last year they have taken tourists and some journalists on unauthorized visits to the rare animals.
Virunga National Park is located in a lawless swath of eastern Congo that the country's government has struggled to bring under control for years. Established in 1925 as Africa's first national park, it was classified as a U.N. World Heritage Site in 1979.