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The army has launched a major counterattack in southern Rwanda, the first big offensive by besieged government forces since the civil war with rebels resumed two months ago.

"Obviously they want to push back the whole of the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) forces from the south," Canadian Maj. Jean-Guy Plante, a military spokesman for the 450-man U.N. force in Rwanda, said Monday.In two months, rebels have swept government and civilian militia forces from much of the north and east and part of the south, and by late last month had captured about half of the country.

Plante said there also was heavy fighting about 12 miles north of Kigali but had no further details.

Fighting has been intense around the city of Gitarama, the provisional seat of the Hutu-dominated government. The Tutsi-led rebels captured the nearby town of Kabgayi last week, but rebel forces there are still coming under shell fire.

U.N. officers assumed that the government plan is to push the rebel forces as far as possible east of the main north-south road between Gitarama and the Burundi border.

The war erupted April 6 after the death of President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, in a mysterious plane crash. The presidential guard, army soldiers and civilians armed by Hutu extremist political parties went on a rampage, killing Tutsis and Hutu opposition figures.

That prompted rebels to resume a 3-year-old civil war, marching down from positions they held in the north behind a demilitarized zone set up by a peace accord signed in August.

The president died while returning from a conference to solidify the peace.

An estimated 200,000 people have been slain, mostly Tutsis butchered by the roving militias armed with hand grenades, machetes and spears. There have been far fewer deaths in army-rebel fighting.

Plante said the army's mortar attack on a U.N. flight carrying an Italian delegation Sunday at Kigali airport may have been part of the overall plan to boost the morale of government troops.

Two shells exploded around the plane just after it arrived, and the United Nations issued a strong protest. The plane was forced to leave without unloading passengers or cargo.

Sunday's attack on the Kigali airport led to suspension of all relief flights.