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Outbreak of Violence in Congo Raises Fear of Wider Unrest - 2002-04-10

Officials in the Republic of Congo are urging residents of the capital, Brazzaville, to return to their homes, after the sound of gunfire late Tuesday prompted thousands to flee the southern parts of the city. The unrest follows an upsurge in fighting in recent days between government forces and opposition militia gunmen known as Ninjas.

The southern parts of the Congolese capital were calm by early Wednesday, after the government issued a statement, explaining that the sounds that had been heard late Tuesday were shots fired during a police operation and not a new outbreak of fighting.

Witnesses have said the sound of gunfire prompted thousands of panicked residents to flee Brazzaville's Bacongo and Mekelekele districts late Tuesday. Many ran from their homes with their belongings on their heads and took refuge elsewhere in the city. Police say looting broke out amid the chaos.

Government officials later said the gunfire took place while security forces were collecting weapons from former combatants in the south of the capital. Witnesses said soldiers shot into the air when some former combatants tried to run from a sporting facility where the weapons collection was taking place.

The combatants being disarmed were formerly with the opposition militia group known as the Ninjas. The group was one of several factions involved in a series of conflicts over the past decade. The fighting during the 1990's killed, according to the official tally, at least 15,000 people. A ceasefire agreement was declared in 1999.

The panic of Tuesday night came amid an upsurge in fighting between government forces and the Ninja fighters, who have been holding out in Congo's western Pool region. Relief agencies say the fighting in Pool has displaced thousands of people since hostilities began last week.

The new outbreak of violence has raised concerns among Congolese that the country might be sliding back into a full-fledged conflict.

Officials on Wednesday urged Brazzaville residents to return to their homes to prevent the looting from continuing.