KINSHASA, Congo – Hundreds of militiamen carried out a nighttime raid on a Congolese army camp, setting off gunbattles that killed 52 rebel fighters and one soldier, an army spokesman said Sunday.
The raid, which happened Saturday night, came as the country prepares to hold its first nationwide vote in decades at the end of July.
Congo is struggling to regain peace after years of dictatorship and war. Sporadic fighting continues in the east, where militiamen control large areas, and United Nations troops based in the country say they are planning military operations to try to secure those areas before the vote.
"The militiamen have not retreated. They're still hiding in the forests and we will surely confront them tonight as well," Major Angole Mbula said.
He said 52 militia fighters and one government soldier died in Saturday's fighting in the eastern Ituri region.
Mbula said as many as 500 militiamen attacked the battalion based in the village of Nioka. The attackers included fighters from the Revolutionary Congolese Movement and others led by Peter Karin, a warlord based in the area, Mbula said.
"The militias are well-armed with rocket launchers, mortars and RPGs," Mbula said.
Militias in Ituri are regrouping after a series of U.N.-backed military offensives set them back in late 2004. The Revolutionary Congolese Movement was created in December and has grown to 1,500 fighters, U.N. officials have said. Peter Karin commands about 300 men, Mbula said.
U.N. spokesman Djibril Samassa said recently that the U.N. is planning military operations against Ituri militias ahead of the elections. The world's largest U.N. peacekeeping mission is in Congo, with more than 17,000 peacekeepers.
The Ituri region has been violent for years, with ethnic clashes killing 50,000 people since 1999.