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KINSHASA (Reuters) - Exchanges of heavy weapons fire erupted in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo on Thursday between the army and militia fighters, and several students sitting exams were wounded in an explosion at a school, residents said.

The fighting in and around the city of Beni between Congo's army and what is believed to be a new coalition of armed groups, the National Movement of Revolutionaries (MNR), erupted early in the morning and kept residents trapped in their homes, local activist Teddy Kataliko said.

Gilbert Kambale, another local activist, said that the bodies of three militia fighters were lying on the street, not far from the mayor's office. An army spokesman in the zone said: "The situation is not good," but declined to comment further.

The fighting followed a breakout by more than 900 inmates, many suspected militiamen, from Beni's main prison this month - one of a series of mass jailbreaks that has underlined the security situation further since President Joseph Kabila refused to step down at the end of his constitutional mandate in December.

Kataliko and Kambale also said unidentified assailants set off an explosive device at a local secondary school, wounding several students sitting for exams. A hospital source said at least three student were injured in the blast.

Eastern Congo contains dozens of armed groups that prey on locals and exploit mineral reserves. Millions died there between 1996 and 2003 in a regional conflict from violence, hunger and disease.

(Reporting By Aaron Ross, Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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