(New York) - Residents of the eastern Congolese town of Beni are caught in the crossfire of week-long violent clashes between two competing rebel factions, with many civilians killed and injured, Human Rights Watch said today.

Beni is the administrative capital of parts of northeastern Congo occupied by Uganda and nominally controlled by the Ugandan-backed rebel Front for the Liberation of Congo (FLC). The clashes have erupted between opposing factions of the Army for the Liberation of Congo (ALC): those loyal to the FLC's leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, and those loyal to Mbusa Nyamwisi, a local rebel leader who had left the town soon after joining forces with the FLC.

The fighting has disrupted civilian life, forcing residents to hunker down in their homes, and bringing schools, markets, and other civilian activities to a standstill. An eyewitness who fled Beni yesterday told Human Rights Watch that the population was fleeing to the surrounding bush following the arrival on the same day of five truckloads of troop reinforcements for Bemba's camp. The witness said seventeen people were killed in the market area alone, while others were hit by stray bullets as they fled. Soldiers looted the empty stands in the market after the traders fled. The official Ugandan daily New Vision on Saturday reported that fifty people were killed in the fighting. Human Rights Watch has learned that the casualties included many civilians.

"Jean-Pierre Bemba and the Ugandan army backing him should do everything possible to ensure that civilians are protected," said Suliman Baldo, senior researcher at the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "Humanitarian groups must have access to those who were harmed in the fighting."

Baldo called on the United Nations Security Council to condemn the fighting, and to authorize the United Nations' Organization Mission in Congo (MONUC) to send observers to investigate the situation in Beni, in particular the extent of loss of lives among civilians and damage to property, and report its findings to the Security Council.