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Congo Rebels Advance in Capital

October 11, 1997

BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) _ The presidential palace and Brazzaville airport were in government hands Saturday despite rebels claims to have captured them. But the rebels continued advancing through the Republic of Congo’s capital, sending thousands of civilians fleeing.

Residents either fled to safer neighborhoods ahead of the advance by ``Cobra″ militiamen or left the city altogether, according to witnesses who crossed the Congo River to Kinshasa, capital of neighboring Congo, formerly Zaire.

At the presidential palace, President Pascal Lissouba accepted visitors to belie reports by the rebel loyal to a former military ruler that the building had been captured.

``I am home,″ Lissouba said in a brief interview, standing midway up a palace stairway while the sound of gunfire echoed not too far in the distance. ``You can see that I am home, and the airport too,″ is under government control, he said. A visit to the airport confirmed that.

His soldiers, though, obviously were fearing another attack, the latest in a civil war that has divided this Central African country since June,

On Saturday, most of the soldiers stayed close to walls or other barriers, with bullets occasionally zinging overhead. While waiting for the next battle to begin, they described repeated scenes of attacking Cobras, coming in waves of over 100 to try to take the palace and airport.

On Friday, Lissouba himself had seemed to indicate that the airport had fallen to the Cobras, but insisted Saturday that he had been misunderstood.

The Cobras, under the command of former military ruler Gen. Denis Sassou-Nguesso, now control about three-quarters of the country. Lissouba’s forces control the country from Brazzaville to the Atlantic Ocean.

Thousands of people have died in the fighting, and most of Brazzaville has been abandoned to the warring militiamen.

The war broke out when Lissouba tried to disarm Sassou-Nguesso’s militia ahead of presidential elections both men were contesting.

Sassou-Nguesso accused Lissouba of provoking the violence so he would have an excuse to delay the election and hold onto power.

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