Thirty two Mai Mai militiamen have been killed during a two-day military operation carried out this week by Congolese government soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers. Two government soldiers died but no peacekeepers were hurt during the operation, which was launched to free four election workers who had been taken hostage in Congo's lawless east.

Congolese government soldiers and United Nations peacekeepers this week launched an operation to free four election workers who had been captured by Mai Mai militiamen in the lawless east.

Thirty two Mai Mai and two government soldiers were killed during the two-day operation to free the electoral workers, a spokesman for the U.N. mission said on Wednesday.

Congolese and U.N. military sources said a further four government soldiers were wounded while none of the 60 Indian peacekeepers who took part were hurt.

The poll workers were taken hostage on October 22 near Virundo, some 25 km west of the town of Butembo, on Democratic Republic of Congo's border with Uganda.

The kidnapping of the election workers by the Mai Mai - one of a series of armed groups still operating in the east, 2.5 years after the official end of the war - highlights the challenges that lie ahead of organizing elections in Congo.

The polls are due to be held by mid 2006 but, despite a vast U.N. peacekeeping operation and attempts to rebuild Congo's national army, a plethora of armed groups continue to roam around the east.

The U.N. has just under 17,000 peacekeepers in Congo, where they are charged with protecting civilians but are increasingly being used to back up Congo's army in operations to crack down on the armed groups.