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M23 rebels, army clash at outskirts of Congo

GOMA, Congo -- Rebels believed to be backed by Rwanda fired mortars and machine guns yesterday on the outskirts of the provincial capital of Goma, threatening to capture one of the largest cities in eastern Congo in a development that could drag this giant Central African nation back into war.

The gunfire and explosions erupted in the early afternoon, with shells landing as far away as the international airport and near a United Nations position, causing flights to be rerouted and prompting the UN to evacuate most of its employees, according to UN officials.

The violence erupted just hours after the M23 rebels said they were halting fighting to negotiate with the government of Congo. But government spokesman Lambert Mende told The Associated Press by phone that negotiations are out of the question, saying Congo will not give in to the "blackmail" of a Rwandan-backed group.

Congo and Rwanda have already fought two wars, the most recent of which ended in 2003 after lasting nearly six years. Yesterday, both nations accused the other of firing mortars across the narrow border which runs on one side of Goma, a city of 1 million which is the economic heart of Congo's mineral-rich region.

Rwandan military spokesman Gen. Joseph Nzabamwita said that Congolese shells had fallen on the Rwandan side, while Mende said that a mortar fired from Rwanda landed in the Birere neighborhood near the airport in Goma and wounded at least five people.

Earlier, M23 rebel spokesman Col. Vianney Kazarama told the AP that his men were on their way back to Kibumba, 18 miles north in order to give proposed talks a chance. But yesterday afternoon, Kazarama blamed Congo for renewed hostilities and once again vowed that M23 would take Goma.

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