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Rebel militia claims victory in Brazzaville

Former military leader Denis Sassou Nguesso's camp proclaimed victory in the battle for the Congo Republic capital Brazzaville on Wednesday and said their forces controlled the center of the oil town Pointe-Noire.

But a diplomat in Pointe-Noire said that pro-Sassou Angolan troops with tanks had entered the oil-producing former French colony's Atlantic port city after dawn. Both he and the Sassou spokesman reported little apparent resistance there."We have total control of the city of Brazzaville," Sassou spokesman Isidore Mvouba told Reuters in Kinshasa by telephone from Gabon, proclaiming victory in the battle for the city.

"We have reached the bridge at Djoue," Sassou's war commander, Gen. Jean-Marie Tassoua told Reuters. The bridge is on the southern fringe of Brazzaville and its capture would indicate the whole capital was now under Sas-sou's control.

The city was relatively calm after days of fierce fighting.

France said Wednesday that it was ready, if needed, to evacuate its nationals from the Congo Republic.

The whereabouts of President Pascal Lissouba, 65, was not clear.

Sassou's Cobra militia gained the upper hand in Brazzaville on Tuesday, capturing Lissouba's presidential palace. Earlier they took the airport, which Lissouba loyalists had held for most of the four-month power struggle.

Tassoua said they had encountered pockets of resistance on Wednesday but these were being "cleaned-up."

"We have asked our forces not to attack the civilian population, but if they meet Ninjas or Koykoys (rival militias), they must ask them put down their weapons in the greater interest of the country," he added.

Cobra militiamen returning from the front line say much of the resistance on Tuesday came from Ninja militia loyal to the prime minister, Bernard Kolelas, who had rallied to Lissouba's cause this month after remaining neutral for most of the conflict.

The capital has been almost totally deserted of its 800,000 civilian population who have fled the ethnic and political fighting, which has killed several thousand people in the city.

Mvouba said Sassou loyalists had entered Pointe-Noire.

"We control the center of the town, and we are heading toward the outskirts where there is some resistance," he added, noting that there had been little resistance.

Congo Brazzaville's oil is mostly off-shore, and industry analysts have thus far predicted little disruption.

Pointe-Noire is close to Lissouba's southern power base and Cabinda, which is separated from the main part of Angola by the former Zaire. Sassou is a northerner.

A diplomat in Pointe-Noire reported Angolan troops in the town. "Angolan troops have been in the town since 6 a.m.," he told Reuters in Kinshasa by telephone.

Residents in the town, which is not far from Lissouba's southern power base, reported sporadic looting. "They are taking cars and have started opening up shops," one told Reuters in Kinshasa. It was not immediately clear who was responsible.

Sassou spokesmen regularly deny the involvement of Angolan troops in the conflict, but diplomats and other sources in the region say that they crossed from Angola's enclave of Cabinda.

Lissouba loyalists accuse Angola of helping his rival and have asked the U.N. Security Council to intervene.