World Bank gives Great Lakes $1bn in aid as Ban visits restive DRCongo

The World Bank on Wednesday announced $1 billion in aid for Africa's Great Lakes region as UN chief Ban Ki-moon arrived in the Democratic Republic of Congo where fresh fighting has sent hundreds of people fleeing.

Fighting erupted between the Congolese army and rebels near the flashpoint eastern city of Goma for a third straight day, the first clashes in the troubled region since a major crisis last year.

Residents of nearby refugee camps have been fleeing in their hundreds since Monday when the government says 19 people were killed in battles between M23 rebels and troops near Goma.

Ban arrived in Kinshasa as part of a Great Lakes tour which should also take him to Goma, the hub of the mineral-rich east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, an area gripped by conflict for more than two decades.

He said Tuesday during a visit to Mozambique that the deployment of a rapid UN intervention force made up of about 3,000 African troops should be accelerated in view of the fresh unrest, unleashed just three months after a UN-brokered accord signed by regional African leaders.

"Considering what has happened I think we must expedite the deployment so they will be fully responsible as soon as possible," said Ban.

The force was approved by the UN Security Council in March as its first ever "offensive" peacekeeping brigade.

Ban is due on Thursday to visit Goma, where the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world is deployed but which failed to stop last year's uprising by the M23 rebels.

A UN source said there was no question of Ban cancelling his trip to Goma despite the unrest, which comes barely a week after the first troops from the new UN intervention brigade arrived in the east.

M23 -- a largely ethnic Tutsi group -- vowed to retaliate if attacked by UN troops.

Both sides blame each other for launching the latest round of hostilities, which flared as peace talks which first opened in December in Kampala remain stalled.

Ban's tour will also take him to Rwanda and Uganda which have been accused by both Kinshasa and the United Nations of backing M23, an allegation the two neighbouring countries deny.

M23 rebels said they had come under attack from government forces from early Wednesday.

"The FARDC (Congolese army) has been attacking us since 6 am (0400 GMT) with mortars, tanks and rocket launchers in the Mutaho area," M23 military spokesman Vianney Kazarama told AFP.

The United Nations says about 800 people have fled refugee camps located near the epicentre of the fighting this week in Mutaho, about 12 kilometres (seven miles) north of Goma.

Colonel Olivier Hamuli, spokesman for the army in North Kivu province, denied government forces had started the fighting.

"It is they who began (to attack) as they want to take Mutaho at any price... We are fighting back to defend our positions and so far we have suffered no losses," Hamuli told AFP.

He also accused the rebels of "deliberately launching bombs on the population" and of using long-range weapons that had reached areas such as Mugunga to the west of Goma where refugee camps are located.

Medecins sans Frontieres said four people were wounded by "six shells" which struck Mugunga, while at Ndosho -- the gateway to Goma, two people were killed and a dozen wounded by shells.

A UN source confirmed attacks in Mugunga, but said the refugee camps were not hit.

"Since yesterday (Tuesday), there have been shots fired by heavy weapons, apparently even shells, which were launched into the district of Mugunga but the shots did not hit the camps," she said.

Government spokesman Lambert Mende had told journalists that Monday's clashes had left 15 rebels and four soldiers dead, while the rebels put the toll at two soldiers.

Ban is accompanied on his trip by World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, UN peacekeeping force chief Herve Ladsous and Mary Robinson, the UN special envoy for the Great Lakes region.

The World Bank meanwhile announced fresh aid "to help countries in the region provide better health and education services, generate more cross-border trade, and fund hydroelectricity projects."