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Rebels Overrun Congo Town and Nearby Mine - 2004-10-15

An unknown number of heavily armed gunmen has seized a southeastern Congolese town and a nearby copper mine. The Congolese government says it has sent troops to the area and the situation is under control, but miners, aid workers and civilians are fleeing the town of Kilwa, near the border with Zambia.

Aid workers and residents who have been contacted in Kilwa, a remote mining town in the deep southeastern corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo, say the rebels arrived late Wednesday.

Witnesses say the heavily armed gunmen took the town and a nearby copper mine with ease, as government forces fled.

The United Nations has said there were reports of shooting, but they have no information about any casualties.

During the last 36 hours, foreign staff working at the copper mine have been evacuated, as have humanitarian workers in the area, and there are reports that civilians have begun to flee.

It is still not yet clear who the armed men are, or why they took the town, but some officials and local experts say they likely include local Mai Mai militias, as well as provincial rebels known as Katangan Tigers.

In the 1960s, there were several attempts to gain independence for the copper rich province of Katanga. When the uprising failed, the rebels fled to neighboring Angola, where they have lived ever since, many serving in the army.

But some in Katanga still want independence and analysts say those people could be involved in this incident.

Congo's fragile transitional government has sent reinforcements to deal with the uprising, and a spokesman said Friday that the situation is under control. The government has also dispatched a delegation to neighboring Zambia to ease concerns that the problem might spill over the border.

Congo is struggling to recover from a five-year war that involved six neighboring countries and killed three million people, mostly from hunger and disease brought on by the conflict.

The United Nations has accused several neighboring countries involved in the war of plundering Congo's natural resources during the years of fighting.