By Todd Pitman
KIGALI, Aug 16 (Reuters) - Rwandan and Ugandan troops fought fierce street battles in the eastern Congolese city of Kisangani on Monday, trapping civilians inside their homes as tensions between rival rebel factions threatened to spin out of control.
Leaders of both Uganda and Rwanda were scheduled to meet on Monday afternoon in a bid to return some sort of order to rebel-held Kisangani, but their forces on the ground continued to pound each other throughout the morning.
"The fighting is still going on with the use of heavy weapons and mortars," Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, the leader of the Ugandan-backed Congolese rebel faction, told Reuters by satellite telephone.
Wamba said civilians in Kisangani were holed up in their houses with battles raging down residential streets and fires burning across the city. There was no way for families to escape to the surrounding jungle.
Wamba said he did not have details of casualties but expected them to be "very heavy" among both civilians and soldiers.
"The fighting has been very intense with a lot of damage to the city," he said.
The clashes erupted on Saturday night at the city's international airport and spread into the city. Each side blamed the other for starting it.
Uganda and Rwanda were firm allies in recent years but now support rival factions in a year-old rebel war they are both sponsoring against Congolese President Laurent Kabila.
Patrick Mazimhaka, Rwanda's minister of state in the president's office, said the country's powerful Vice-President and Defence Minister Paul Kagame would meet Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni at his holiday home in southwestern Uganda on Monday to try to end the crisis in Kisangani.
"We're working together to resolve this and we're going to meet them today and see what the hell happened," Mazimhaka told Reuters.
Gayle Smith, a U.S. National Security Adviser visiting the region, has held meetings with both leaders in an attempt to ease the tension, U.S. diplomats in Kigali said.
The clashes follow a series of gun battles in the city last weekend between Rwandan-backed rebels from the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) and Ugandan troops backing the splinter RCD faction led by Wamba, who was ousted from the group's leadership in May.
Wamba claimed the Rwandans had trucked in over 4,000 troops from the border town of Goma in recent days, who were pitched against 1,500 of his own rebels and an unspecified number of Ugandan soldiers.
Rivalry between the two factions blocked the rebels from signing a peace accord brokered on July 10 in the Zambian capital Lusaka which was signed by six African governments involved in the year-old rebellion.
"Kisangani was a town that was run by the RCD and controlled by the Congolese rebels. But last week Ugandans went and shot them out of their positions to install Wamba there and that has created a severe atmosphere of tension," Mazimhaka said.
Wamba offered a different version of events, putting the blame on Rwandan troops.
"The Rwandese army set up a road block on the way from the airport and opened fire on Ugandan troops who responded," he said.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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