Military officials in the Republic of Congo have said rebels calling themselves Ninjas staged a bloody attack on an air base in the outskirts of the capital, Brazzaville, on Friday. Heavy gunfire rang through the pre-dawn hours, prompting hundreds of residents to flee their homes.
The shooting tapered off shortly after daybreak Friday, but residents continued to flee Brazzaville's western neighborhoods, many of them carrying their belongings on their heads.
One resident, Dorothee Solange, tells VOA she fled her home near the air base after rebels attacked the facility in the pre-dawn hours.
She said she was awakened by the sound of the shooting. "It was automatic and heavy weapons. We saw people running from the neighborhood around the base." She says the fighters had set fire to some buildings and some homes. "I was afraid," she said, "so we left the neighborhood. There were some soldiers who had arrived there and opened fire. I could not stand it any longer. That is why I left."
Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Jean Robert Obargui told VOA that government soldiers repelled the attack.
He said what he called "armed bandits" attacked the Congolese armed forces' air base without success. He said the response by the Congo military was bloody. "I have done a check," he said. "There were more than 60 killed."
Colonel Obargui said most of the dead were Ninja fighters. Residents leaving the scene said they had seen bodies, but did not confirm the figures released by the government.
Military officials said they had retaken control of the base by midday Friday, and residents said gunfire was no longer heard in the afternoon. Still, many residents could be seen leaving the western districts of the city in the evening, saying they feared new fighting would break out.
In an effort to prevent looting, government officials called on residents to return to their homes.
Friday's assault was the first in the capital since fighting erupted in March between government forces and Ninja fighters. The battles had, until now, been limited to the eastern Pool region where the Ninjas are based.
The rebels are followers of a man who calls himself Reverend N'Tumi. The group was one of a number of armed factions involved in bloody conflicts that killed at least 15,000 people in the Republic of Congo during the 1990s.
The Ninjas refused to endorse a peace deal signed in 1999, which had brought relative peace to the country following years of conflicts. Reverend N'Tumi has said he will not agree to a cease-fire until the government accepts his demands for security guarantees and the reintegration of his militias into the army. He also wants to be granted the status of general.
Relief agencies say fighting in the Pool region in recent months has displaced tens of thousands of people.