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Gunmen Retake Congo Stronghold from UN, Army

Congolese gunmen have launched an offensive and retaken their stronghold in the lawless east. The capture of Tchei, in Ituri district, is a setback for the U.N. and government forces that chased militia away just weeks ago and are struggling to pacify Congo ahead of elections later this month.

United Nations peacekeepers and the Democratic Republic of Congo's fledgling army had chased the militia away, on their third attempt, at the end of May.

But, over the last week, rebels in Congo's lawless northeastern Ituri district have mounted an offensive and retaken control of their stronghold, just south of the town of Bunia, the U.N. and the army have confirmed.

During heavy fighting for the town, a government spokesman said at least eight government soldiers were killed. The U.N. said it has also evacuated many wounded government soldiers.

Neither could confirm militia casualties as the rebels always carry away their dead during battle.

The loss of Tchei is a blow to the U.N. peacekeeping force and the ragtag army just weeks before the country's historic elections, which are meant to draw a line under a decade of war and chaos.

Thousands of civilians were displaced during the operation that was carried out by 1,000 U.N. peacekeepers and 3,000 government soldiers to seize Tchei in late May.

The militia's return underlines how weak Congo's army is and the scale of the task that remains to pacify the mineral-rich east, before, during and after the elections.

Ituri is just one of several parts of the east where thousands of rebels are holding out against attempts by the U.N. and the government to stamp their authority three years after Congo's war was officially declared over.

The continuing violence and insecurity adds daily to the estimated four million killed by war-related hunger and disease since 1998.