KINSHASA, Sep 25 (Reuters) Clashes broke out between Congo's army and fighters loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda today, threatening to shatter a fragile three-week ceasefire in the troubled east, UN and army officials said.
In the worst fighting since an informal truce in early September, the army said rebels assaulted government-held positions before dawn in the towns of Karuba, Ngungu and Mweso in volatile, racially mixed North Kivu province on Congo's eastern border with Rwanda.
''They attacked then withdrew. We are maintaining our defensive positions. We have no intention of carrying out military operations against them for now,'' the army's top commander in North Kivu, General Vainqueur Mayala, told Reuters.
Nkunda launched a rebellion in 2004 claiming to be protecting Congo's Tutsi minority.
He accuses President Joseph Kabila of backing Hutu rebels in the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) who have been based in Congo since participating in Rwanda's 1994 genocide in which some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred.
Rene Abandi, a spokesman for Nkunda's National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), accused President Joseph Kabila's forces of firing first today.
''The army started this war. We were attacked by the president of the republic. He thinks that since he was elected he can impose war. We still want to negotiate,'' he said.
However, Congo's UN peacekeeping mission (MONUC) supported the army's assertion that they had been attacked.
''Nkunda is waging a huge campaign in the media that he is being attacked by the FDLR with the Congolese army,'' Sylvie Van Den Wildenberg, MONUC spokesperson in North Kivu, told Reuters.
''We have absolutely no proof of that. It seems more likely that he is attacking.'' Government soldiers battled Nkunda's fighters for nearly two weeks in late August and early September.
MONUC brokered a ceasefire in the town of Sake just 20 km west of provincial capital, Goma, on September 6.
Apart from a few isolated incidents in the days following the deal, both sides had respected the informal truce for nearly three weeks.
UN officials played down the importance of the fresh fighting.
''This is not the first time, and it will probably not be the last. But everything is being done to contain these sporadic clashes,'' Van Den Wildenberg said.
An estimated 300,000 people have fled fighting in North Kivu since the beginning of the year, according to the UN humanitarian coordination agency.
Reuters KK VP0135