The Congolese army battled with dissident fighters in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo for control of the strategically important town Rigari. Rebel fighters, loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda, have won a series of battles against government troops in recent days, after the government launched an offensive last week. Selah Hennessy reports for VOA from Goma.

Rugari stands on the main road about 40 kilometers north of the regional capital, Goma. After dissident soldiers attacked the town, fighting continued throughout the day.

U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo spokeswoman Sylvie Van Den Wildenberg says the town is strategically very important.

"We know that the dissidents want to take this position because by doing that they will block the way for the FARDC [government forces] to protect either Masisi or to protect Rutshuru," she said.

The spokeswoman for the U.N. force known as MONUC says she expects the dissidents' attacks to continue.

"What we observe now, all those kind of guerrilla actions and surprise attacks of strategic position to try to regain some position - it is probably going to go on for a while," she said.

The Congolese army and rebel forces have clashed in a series of bloody conflicts since late August.

In the first week of December the army launched a major offensive against the rebels, aimed at ending their insurgency. But after a series of early victories, the national army is now on the defensive. During the past few days the rebels have retaken the positions they initially lost.

Wildenberg says the losses have dampened morale within the army and undermined the population's confidence in the army's ability.

"What we are seeing is that the recent set-back of the army has also really broken the trust of the population in the Congolese army, even in MONUC by extension," she said. "They live in fear that the dissidents are going to take Goma, Sake, or other areas of the province."

Elsewhere in eastern Congo, army soldiers deserted a town called Kitali, after hearing the dissidents were about to make an attack.

Wildenberg says the U.N. force put pressure on the soldiers to return to the town, and they have now partially re-occupied it.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced in Congo since fighting began in August.