Nkunda's forces had neared Sake, about 20km from Goma, earlier on Thursday but Van Den Wildenberg said they had not entered the town in Nord-Kivu province.

But the general told the Associated Press news agency earlier that the town had fallen to his forces after they "dislodged the regular army".

Under fire

Nkunda said he then ordered his fighters to pull back so that residents would not fall under fire. He has repeatedly accused the army of firing on civilians, a charge the army denies.

"From the beginning, I never asked for this fighting, which has been created by Kinshasa"

Laurent Nkunda, renegade commander
"I plead for this war to end," he said. "From the beginning, I never asked for this fighting, which has been created by Kinshasa."

United Nations peacekeeping forces in the area confirmed that the Congolese military had clashed with the renegade fighters on Thursday.

"The FARDC (DRC army) used an attack helicopter in the hills around Kimoka," Major Vivek Koyal, the regional UN military spokesman, said.

"We also had reports today about firing in the Kabura area."

Residents flee

The residents of Sake fled ahead of the arrival of Nkunda's fighters, who had appeared to have been pushing forward in their battle with the army.

"We're leaving with the soldiers because they said a helicopter will attack the insurgents in the hills and Sake could be hit," David Baliki, a nurse at the local hospital, said
  
An AFP journalist saw hundreds of people walking towards Mugunga, halfway between Sake and Goma, to join more than 5,000 who have already taken refuge in a makeshift camp there since Sunday.

Jean Balengele, a pastor from the town, said he saw close to 20,000 people on the road.

"We are sleeping in the open air, without shelter. We don't have anything to eat because we haven't brought anything and no one here gives it to us," he said Mungunga.

Nkunda, who is believed to be close to top military officials in Rwanda, quit the army and launched his own rebellion after Congo's civil war ended in 2002, claiming the country's transition to democracy was flawed and excluded the country's ethnic Tutsi minority.