Renegade troops in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are trying to forcibly enlist park rangers charged with protecting rare mountain gorillas, an animal welfare charity charged Sunday.
Forces loyal to cashiered general Laurent Nkunda, a powerful local leader, took control of the gorilla sector in Virunga national park as they fought with government troops, Wildlife Direct said.
"As a sign of escalating conflict however the rangers at Jomba (patrol post) were forced to flee Friday because the rebels were trying to force them to become combatants," it said in statement.
Wildlife Direct spokeswoman Samantha Newport told AFP by telephone that rebels had taken control of the whole gorilla sector, adding that "shelling and heavy gunfire was heard from the park ... in and around the gorilla sector".
"It is very serious and the situation for gorillas is now worse than it was when fighting started five weeks ago," Newport added.
"All Congolese mountain gorillas are now unprotected, unmonitored and untracked and therefore there is nothing we can do at the moment."
Newport added that rangers had removed all valuable tracking equipment from their Rumagambo headquarters, a few kilometres from the gorilla sector, in case the clashes reach the area.
There are 1,100 rangers protecting five national parks -- four of which are classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites -- in eastern DRC. Some 150 rangers have been killed while on duty in a decade.
It is not easy to account for the fate of all these rangers during conflict, officials say.
The fresh dangers facing the rare gorillas and rangers sparked impassioned pleas from wildlife activists.
"This conflict has no place in the park, least of all in the habitat of these animals. We hope they will be unharmed," said Norbert Mushenzi, the head of parks for the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN).
Wildlife Direct chief Emmanuel de Merode urged the feuding sides to pull out of the park, warning: "They (gorillas) are not a target, but can so easily get caught in crossfire and shelling."
Lucy Fauveau of the London Zoological Society said security situation was "appalling" and made it "virtually impossible" to work with the gorillas.
When fighting flared up late August, Nkunda's men attacked ICCN gorilla patrol posts and looted weapons, ammunition and communication equipment.
A subsequent UN-mediated armistice unravelled, pushing fighting from the displaced countryside to the dense park.
Ten mountain gorillas have been killed and two have gone missing in Virunga national park since January. These slaughters, some blamed on Nkunda's men, have sparked outrage among conservationists.
After two were killed and eaten in January, the renegade troops pledged to halt the killings in a meeting with Virunga park officials mediated by the United Nations and Congolese army, but the deal fell apart.
Local and foreign militias as well as Congolese soldiers, poachers and illegal miners regularly cross this area of the park, one of Africa's largest.
The mountain gorillas are a major tourist attraction in the Virunga park, but poaching of wildlife there is endemic.
Only about 700 critically endangered mountain gorillas remain in the wild, all of them in the mountain forests of Rwanda, Uganda and the eastern DRC.