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Army soldiers crammed into trucks and cars moved south from Kigali on Thursday along a highway clogged with thousands of civilians fleeing Rwanda's embattled capital.

Exploding mortar shells and small arms fire echoed in the city as U.N. special envoy Iqbal Riza left Kigali for further talks in Mulindi, a rebel stronghold just south of the Uganda border.Thousands of Hutus, fearing the steady advance of the mostly Tutsi rebels in Kigali, trudged with their belongings along the road to Gitarama, beneath the rebel guns in the hills that command the road.

Thousands of other refugees were moved north from Butare to Gitarama. It was not immediately clear if they were fleeing rebel advances in the south or the ethnic slaughter that has continued in government-held areas of southern Rwanda.

In Gitarama, 25 miles southwest of Kigali, soldiers hastily dug shelters and defenses around the buildings that house the interim government.

A government helicopter landed near the government building this morning and officials told AP photographer Joao Silva that the interim president was arriving for a meeting with his Cabinet ministers. It was not clear if the interim president was staying somewhere other than Gitarama.

Col. Bienienzaho Tharicisse, the government prefect of Kigali, denied the army was retreating from the capital and told reporters the troops were digging in to defend Kigali.

However, Silva said he saw hundreds of government soldiers moving along the road to Gitarama, many in trucks pulling anti-aircraft artillery.

Some soldiers trudged alongside the thousands of refugees clogging the highway. Others were in private cars with people who appeared to be members of their families.

Rebels overran the airport and the government's adjacent and heavily defended Kanombe camp on Sunday. U.N. officials have said they expected the rebels to resume their offensive with attacks on the remaining government strongholds.

Chaos has engulfed the country since President Juvenal Habyarimana, a member of the country's majority Hutu ethnic group, died in a plane crash April 6.