Rebels in the Republic of Congo have attacked the capital, Brazzaville, forcing hundreds of people to flee their homes in outlying areas.

The rebels, who call themselves Ninjas, attacked Brazzaville's western districts near the airport in the pre-dawn hours Friday. Residents of the capital said they heard heavy machine gun fire and blasts coming from the direction of the city's airport.

Witnesses said the gunfire lasted for several hours, well past daybreak.

Hundreds of people fled their homes with their belongings on their heads and took refuge in other districts of the city. The streets of the capital remained deserted Friday, except for a large number of soldiers who patrolled the streets.

News reports on state radio described the hostilities as a fight between security forces and what officials referred to as "bandits." The government said its forces were in the process of restoring order.

The attack on Brazzaville came as President Denis Sassou-Nguesso was out of the country. The Congolese leader was in Rome attending the World Food Summit. Fighting between the rebels and the government has been going on in the Republic of Congo's eastern Pool region since March, when Ninjas attacked a train that was traveling between Brazzaville and the city of Pointe-Noire, an important oil-producing center.

Relief agencies say the fighting in Pool has displaced tens of thousands of people.

The attack in March came shortly after President Sassou-Nguesso - who seized power in 1997 - was elected by a landslide in a poll in which he ran largely unopposed.

Mr. Sassou-Nguesso had the support of many Congolese who credit him with securing ceasefire agreements among warring factions and consolidating peace following a series of bloody conflicts in the 1990s.

The Ninjas - led by a man calling himself Reverend N'Tumi - did not sign a 1999 peace deal among the Sassou-Nguesso government and other warring parties.

The rebel leader has refused to enter into a ceasefire accord unless the government fulfills his demands, which include security guarantees for himself and the integration of his militias into the army. He has also asked to be granted the rank of general.