KINSHASA (Reuters) - At least 31 people were killed when gunmen attacked an army base in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on Wednesday, the military said, underlining the challenge facing a new U.N. intervention force in the territory.
The attackers, from one of dozens of armed groups operating in the densely forested terrain, fought a two-hour battle with soldiers at the army recruitment center near the town of Beni in North Kivu province, Colonel Olivier Hamuli told Reuters.
"The provisional death toll is 23 Mai Mai, five recruits and three FARDC (army) soldiers, including a senior officer," Hamuli said.
Mai Mai is the generic name given to a multitude of local armed groups, fighting for control of territory and resources ranging from farm land to mining operations.
Soldiers eventually managed to repel the attack, Hamuli said. Officers were interrogating captured rebels to find out where they came from and why they launched the assault, he added.
The attack was a reminder of the task facing an unprecedented combat force set up by the U.N. Security Council in March to carry out "targeted offensive operations" to neutralize armed groups in the country's east.
The first soldiers in the 3,000-strong International Brigade have already arrived, though it is not clear when the Tanzanian, South African and Malawian forces will start deploying.
It is the first time the United Nations has created such a unit within a traditional peacekeeping force.
Eastern Congo has suffered nearly two decades of conflict as rebels, the army and neighboring countries have battled to control its territory and rich mineral resources.
Around 300 Mai Mai fighters raided the southeastern mining hub of Lubumbashi in March, until then considered one of the safest areas in the conflict-riven state at the heart of Africa.
The United Nations believe there are up to 30 armed groups in North Kivu alone.
They are separate from the better-known M23 insurgent group, fighters who had threatened to overthrow the government, accusing it of failing to honor a 2009 peace deal.
Shops in Beni remained closed after the attack but traffic soon returned to the streets, one resident told Reuters.
(Reporting by Jonny Hogg; Editing by Bate Felix and Andrew Heavens)