KALIMA, Congo, Oct 6 (Reuters) - Rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo said on Tuesday they had killed 18 government soldiers in a battle for the strategic town of Kindu in the east of the country.
"There were 18 (government troops) killed this morning," battalion commander Arthur Mulunda said in Kalima, a small village set in thick jungle 80 km (50 miles) east of Kindu. He said one rebel had been shot in the stomach.
"Our soldiers are in the city of Kindu and the fighting is continuing," Mulunda said, adding that rebel troops had crossed the Lualaba river and entered the town before dawn.
Mulunda said the rebels began shelling the town early on Tuesday morning, but did not yet control it. He said 44 troops loyal to the government had been captured. The details could not be independently verified.
Rebels fighting to topple President Laurent Kabila hold large swathes of eastern Congo. They see Kindu as a major prize because they say government planes taking off from its airport are within bombing radius of rebel strongholds further east.
Mulunda said residents of Kindu, about 440 km (275 miles) southwest of the eastern rebel stronghold of Goma, had begun fleeing the town, some on the road toward the diamond-rich province of Eastern Kasai.
Other rebel leaders, speaking from Goma, claimed foreign troops fighting in support of Kabila had also begun retreating.
Bizima Karaha, the Congolese foreign minister-turned-rebel, said in a telephone interview with Reuters in Johannesburg that Sudanese and Zimbabwean government forces had withdrawn by air and road to Kasai.
Rebel commander Richard Mondo told Reuters that more than 2,000 rebel troops were engaged in the fighting. He said government troops had retreated from Kindu airport, four km (2.5 miles) east of the town, but the rebels had not captured it.
"No one is in control of the airport. They (government troops) have just withdrawn," Mondo said.
The rebels -- backed by troops and equipment from neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda -- launched a revolt to oust =A0Kabila from power on August 2.
But their bid to take the capital Kinshasa in late August came to an end after Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe intervened with troops and military aid to help bolster Kabila's embattled government army.
Analysts say Kindu is strategic because it is directly linked to the mineral-rich Shaba province and Congo's biggest diamond city of Mbuji-Mayi.
Kalima was captured by the rebels on Saturday and none of its inhabitants remains. The rebels said they killed 19 government soldiers in the fight for the village, which fell after a 45-minute gun battle.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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