U.N. troops have clashed for the second day with armed militiamen in Congo's northeastern town of Bunia, as they step up their operations to clear the town of weapons. The U.N. troops are yet to deploy into the surrounding mineral-rich Ituri Province after taking over from a French-led European force.

U.N. troops stepped up operations in Bunia town to clear neighborhoods of illegal weapons left behind and hidden from view after months of conflict in the town.

A French-led European force that had deployed in Bunia in June to stop attacks on civilians by rival ethnic Hema and Lendu militia had enforced a no-weapons rule in town. But gunfire was heard in several spots around the town at night throughout the European force's mandate area. the European mandate ended at the beginning of September.

U.N. forces that took over from the French launched a search for remaining weapons in the houses and headquarters of militia leaders in the town. They arrested members of the principal Hema militia, called the UPC (Union of Congolese Patriots) for holding back guns and ammunition.

On Monday, a U.N. patrol involved in the search was shot at on the streets, and Uruguayan U.N. troops fired back.

A U.N. helicopter returning from patrol from the hills to the north of Bunia fired on a pick-up truck filled with armed men in camouflage, injuring some of the men and forcing them to flee into the bush four kilometers north of Bunia.

This is the first time U.N. forces have been forced to use their weapons under an expanded U.N. mandate they received last July authorizing them to use whatever force necessary to control and execute their missions.

With the resurgence of civil disturbance, neighborhood killings, public lootings and violations of the weapons ban in Bunia, U.N. military officials are under pressure to postpone the planned deployment of their forces out of the town and into the Itury province.

U.N. peacekeepers have limited their activity to controlling security in and around the town and conducting reconnaissance missions into the countryside.

The recent violence is putting further strain on the new transitional government of reconciliation, which was installed in July to end more than four years of civil war that claimed three million lives since 1999.