President Joseph Kabila of Congo visited territory in the country's northeast formerly held by rebels for the first time since taking power in 2001, his spokesman said Saturday.

Eastern Congo was controlled for years by two rival rebel factions that were proxies of neighboring Uganda and Rwanda. The region was off-limits to Kabila's government, which is based 700 miles to the west, in Kinshasa, the capital.

Kabila heads a transitional government that was set up in 2003 to lead the vast African country to elections next year after a five-year war that drew in six neighboring countries and killed 3 million people, most of them from hunger and disease.

Despite the presence of about 10,000 U.N. peacekeepers, much of eastern Congo remains unstable, wracked by fighting between rival militias, former rebel groups and troops loyal to the government.

Kabila's visit to Kisangani, Congo's second-largest city, was "a strong sign that the country is now unified," Kasongo Kudura, a presidential spokesman, said by telephone.

Kudura declined to say how long Kabila would stay in Kisangani but said the president would also visit other regions formerly controlled by rebels.

On Thursday, Mayi Mayi tribal fighters seized the lakeside village of Kilwa on Congo's southeastern border with Zambia, demanding that they be integrated into the country's new national army and given official ranks and salaries, military officials said.

Government troops were sent to the area and retook the village Friday, Henri Mova Sakanyi, the information minister, said.

Deputy Gov. Chikez Diemu said soldiers killed "between 20 to 30 militiamen" during the fight.

Nine civilians died the night militiamen seized the town when the canoe they were fleeing in capsized on Lake Mweru, Diemu said.

Congo, which is the size of Western Europe, has known little but corrupt governance and war since gaining independence from Belgium in 1960. It is one of the world's poorest nations despite its vast mineral wealth. Kabila took power after his father, rebel leader-turned-president Laurent Kabila, was killed by a bodyguard.

President Joseph Kabila of Congo took power in 2001 during a civil war.