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Congo rebels claim 800 killed in attack

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BUJUMBURA, Burundi — A Congolese rebel leader said Friday his fighters had killed about 800 government soldiers when their three riverboats burned and sank under rebel fire.

Jean-Pierre Bemba, leader of the Ugandan-backed Congolese Liberation Movement, said his rebels had counted about 800 bodies floating on the Oubangi River on Thursday after the attack near Dongo, in the northern Equateur Province.

"One ship, which carried most of the troops, burned because of fuel and ammunition," Bemba said by satellite telephone from his headquarters in Gbadolite in northern Congo. "We destroyed them with 107 mm artillery missiles, and our infantry had attacked them."

There was no independent confirmation of the rebel claim.

Despite a cease-fire agreement last year, fighting between President Laurent Kabila's army and the rebels has intensified, dimming hopes for an end to the two-year civil war.

Bemba said he had given Kabila a 72-hour ultimatum through U.N. military observers in Gbadolite to withdraw from Imesse, a previously rebel-held town that fell to the government in clashes last month.

According to a report on state-controlled National Congolese Radio, government troops were ordered to withdraw from the Oubangi River area on Friday after "pushing back the aggressors."

"We have returned to the positions we held before the signing of the cease-fire," said Leonard Ntwaremba Onfre, the official responsible for government relations with the United Nations. "The head of state believes in respecting this accord."

Onfre, who spoke at a news briefing Friday, did not mention fighting along the river but called upon the rebels to strictly observe the cease-fire.

He also demanded that the rebels' Rwandan and Ugandan backers withdraw from Congo, urging U.N. observers to speed up their deployment in rebel-held territory to create "evacuation corridors for the aggressors."

Onfre added, however, there was no need for U.N. forces to deploy in government-held territory, arguing that the war was only taking place in rebel-held areas.

The U.N. Security Council has authorized a U.N. peacekeeping force of 5,537 observers and troops.

Kabila, however, has blocked the deployment of U.N. troops in the capital, Kinshasa, and Mbandaka, a key river port, in violation of the peace plan he signed with the three rebel factions and their backers last year in Lusaka, Zambia.

Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia, which back Kabila, also signed.

A summit bringing together leaders of all the countries involved in the Congo conflict has been scheduled for Monday in Lusaka.