40 militiamen, three Congolese soldiers killed in two days of fighting

At least 40 militiamen and three Congolese soldiers were killed in two days of fighting as hundreds of Congolese soldiers backed by U.N. peacekeepers attacked a northeastern rebel stronghold, a Congolese army spokesman said Wednesday. Forty militiamen and three Congolese soldiers were killed, said Olivier Mputu, Congo's army spokesman in North Kivu. The army had given an early count of 19 militiamen dead and one Congolese soldier wounded.

Some 1,000 Congolese soldiers backed by 300 U.N. peacekeepers attacked Monday to dislodge a rebel group known as the Revolutionary Movement of Congo around the town of Similiki, some 40 kilometers (25 miles)south of Bunia, U.N. Spokesman Maj. Hans-Jakob Reichen said. "Congo's army confirmed that 19 militiamen were killed in heavy fighting," Reichen told The Associated Press by phone from the northeastern town of Kisangani.

Reichen said heavy fighting continued Tuesday at Similiki. One Congolese soldier was killed in fighting on Tuesday, he said, and three other injured soldiers were evacuated to safety.

Last month, Congo's army backed by the U.N. have stepped up efforts to clear Congo's lawless east of militiamen who hide in its lush forests.

As few as 1,000 regular combatants belonging to militia groups may remain in Congo's troubled northeastern Ituri territory, down from about 5,000 in the same territory six months ago, according to Reichen.

Securing the vast and lawless east is a priority for Congo's government and the 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, the world's largest, in the run-up to Congo's first presidential elections in 45 years, slated for March next year, reports the AP. I.L.