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Tuesday, December 15, 1998 Published at 13:55 GMT

World: Africa

Zimbabwe commander 'killed in Congo'

Zimbabwe's military: Allied to the Congolese government

Rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo say they have killed more than 40 Zimbabwean soldiers, including two senior officers during a battle for Kabalo, a rebel-held Congo River port.

There has been no independent confirmation but miltary officials in Zimbabwe deny earlier reports, broadcast on Radio Rwanda, that the dead included the commander of the Zimbabwean forces in the region.

The officials said the man named by Radio Rwanda, Colonel Alphonso Kufa, was not in charge of Zimbabwe's operation to back Congolese President Laurent Kabila.

"Kufa is not the overall commander, he is a contingent commander. In fact his actual title is Team of Operations Deputy," one army officer was quoted as saying.

Another senior Zimbabwean air force officer was also killed and a Zimbabwean sergeant captured, according to the radio report.

Zimbabwe is one of several countries supporting President Kabila, who is trying to quash a rebellion based in the east.

Rwanda, together with Uganda, is supporting the rebels.

News of the killings comes after reports from the rebels that they shot down two aircraft during fierce fighting in the east of the country at the weekend.

The Zimbabwean army has admitted losing a helicopter gunship during the weekend's fighting due to what it called mechanical problems, but has revealed no details of its casualties.

Army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ben Ncube said 80 Congolese rebels were killed in the fighting in the east, and that several of the rebels' military vehicles and artillery pieces had been destroyed.

Peace process stalled

Attempts to secure a ceasefire have stalled over President Kabila's refusal to talk to the rebels, who are being supported by Rwanda and Uganda.

Lt Col Ncube said that both sides in the conflict were trying to advance - the rebels towards the diamond rich town of Mbuji-Mayi and Congo's second city of Lubumbashi, while President Kabila's allies were attacking rebel strongholds.

Despite what he called "our intensified offensive", Lt Col Ncube admitted that the towns of Kabalo, Kalemie and Moba, where latest fighting occured, were still in rebel hands.

Diplomatic 'progress'

The news of the latest fighting came shortly after South African President Nelson Mandela and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe met in Harare to try to find a peaceful solution to the Congolese war.

Although they said progress had been been made, there remains a crucial division on whether rebel leaders should have face-to-face discussions with Laurent Kabila. Further peace talks are scheduled for later this week.

Meanwhile an opinion poll carried out in Zimbabwe's urban areas has found that 70% of people were opposed to the war, mainly over concerns about the loss of life and the economic consequences.

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