Republic of Congo: security forces battle ex-rebels in capital

Explosions and gunfire sounded briefly in Republic of Congo's capital for the second time in a week as security forces launched an operation Wednesday to uproot former rebels who have failed to lay down arms since a 2003 peace deal.

As booms echoed across the city in early afternoon, pupils ran from schools, shopkeepers closed their stores and the streets were full of people heading home. State television, headquartered in the stricken neighborhood, was off the air.

Residents reported at least three heavy detonations and exchanges of gunfire over a half hour period in Brazzaville's Bacongo neighborhood, a stronghold of ex-rebels loyal to renegade Pastor Frederic Bitsangou.

Clashes between the two sides broke out in the area last week leaving six dead, one day before former Prime Minister Bernard Kolelas returned from an eight-year exile to bury his wife, the AP reports.

Kolelas, who is still in Brazzaville, led the so-called Ninja rebels during back-to-back wars in the late 1990s before Bitsangou took over the group's leadership.

A senior army intelligence officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not permitted to speak publicly to the press, said the army had launched an operation to clean rebel fighters from the area.

He said troops had encircled Bitsangou's Brazzaville residence, home to top rebel officials. Bitsangou is not in the capital. He lives in his stronghold in Vinza, 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the northwest. A.M.

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