KINSHASA - Congo's army fought gun battles on Tuesday with a separatist militia just 30 km (19 miles) from Lubumbashi, capital of the copper-rich Katanga province, the provincial governor told Reuters.
Although Katanga has been spared most of the rebellions that have simmered in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the last decade, the area, home to some of the world's largest copper reserves, has seen sporadic violence.
Hundreds of rebels attacked the Katangan capital last year and then surrendered after battles with security forces. Soon after, the U.N. peacekeeping mission said the situation could deteriorate.
Katanga governor Moise Katumbi told Reuters that clashes erupted overnight with fighters loyal to a militia leader called Kyungu Mutanga, also known as Gedeon.
"The army is hunting them and the fighting will continue until they are permanently driven away," Katumbi said by telephone.
Katumbi said the fighting was focused around Kiziba, southeast of Lubumbashi, but did not give a toll from the clashes.
According to a leaked report by U.N. experts in Congo, Gedeon's fighters are part of a loose network of armed groups known as Kata Katanga that are seeking secession for the province.
The multinational mining companies operating in Katanga include Freeport McMoRan and Glencore.
Violence in the province has not reached the levels seen in areas to the north, near the border with Rwanda and Uganda, where the U.N.-backed army last year defeated M23 rebels who had posed the greatest threat to President Joseph Kabila in a decade.
However, by the end of September last year, some 360,000 people had been displaced by fighting in Katanga, according to the U.N. experts.
Kabila is from Katanga, giving him a degree of local support.
But the province's relationship with the weak Kinshasa government has long been fractious. It failed in a bid for independence in the 1960s and talk of secession has never gone away.
The U.N. experts say that John Numbi, a former police chief and ally of Kabila's from Katanga, has provided military, financial and logistical support to the Kata Katanga. Numbi denies any links with the rebels.