By Fiston Mahamba
GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - At least 14 civilians and four soldiers were killed on Saturday in a six-hour attack by rebels on the town of Beni in eastern Congo, the army and local officials said, warning the unrest could hamper efforts to quash an Ebola epidemic in the area.
The latest outbreak of the deadly disease in Democratic Republic of Congo has been focussed in North Kivu and Ituri provinces, which have been a tinder box of armed rebellion and ethnic killing since two civil wars in the late 1990s.
Militants believed to belong to the Allied Democratic Forces, a Ugandan Islamist group active in eastern Congo, clashed with Congolese troops in Beni, a town of several hundred thousand people, local civil society leader Kizito Bin Hangi said by telephone.
"Beni is ungovernable this morning. Several protests have been declared in the town where the people express their anger with consternation," he said.
In addition to the known fatalities, dozens of civilians were wounded as they fled the violence, which broke out in the early hours of Saturday evening and lasted until midnight, Bin Hangi added.
During a press conference in Beni on Sunday, a representative of the Congolese army said four of its soldiers had also been killed in the attack.
Spokesman Mak Hazukay confirmed the civilian death toll of 14, but said six civilians and four military personnel had been wounded -- lower figures than estimated by the civil society leader.
The attack underscores the challenges the government and health organisations face in tackling Ebola in an area where years of instability has undermined locals' confidence in the authorities.
The violence "will have a considerable impact on the whole response to Ebola," a local public health official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"The general hospital which houses one of the Ebola treatment centres was the focus of angry protests this morning. This is a normal reaction for a community that is bereaved for the umpteenth time," the official said.
The latest Ebola outbreak, which causes haemmorhagic fever, vomiting and diarrhea, is believed to have killed 99 people since July and infected another 48.
(Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Catherine Evans)