Ongoing clashes between anti-government fighters and soldiers in south east Fallujah in Iraq have killed at least 44 soldiers and four armed men.

The unrest broke out on Thursday night in Anbar province, a mostly desert region in western Iraq along the Syrian border, where security forces have failed for months to evict rebels from key territory, the AFP news agency reported.

Army forces began shelling the region of Zoba, which lies just south of Fallujah, local officials said, sparking clashes with fighters.

At least four armed men were killed and 22 wounded in the shelling and firefights, according to Al Jazeera journalist Abdulazeem Omar.

"There were clashes and shelling against Zoba from yesterday evening until today, and it is still going on," said Faisal Essawi, an official working in Amriyat al-Fallujah, the nearest town, AFP news agency reported.

"We have been told that fighters control army positions, and there have also been many victims killed and wounded."

Another local official, who did not want to be named, confirmed that fighters had captured army positions in Zoba after the military began shelling.

Anti-government fighters seized Fallujah and parts of Anbar's provincial capital Ramadi in early January.

Since then, security forces have managed to wrest back control of most of Ramadi, but a stalemate has persisted in Fallujah.

The military has periodically shelled the city, as well as surrounding areas, in what it says are strikes against fighter strongholds, but local residents and medical professionals say civilians have been among the casualties.

Almost 400,000 Anbar residents have been displaced from their homes as a result of the unrest, according to the United Nations.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies