Mining for minerals fuels Congo conflict

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LONDON (AP) – The Democratic Republic of Congo has been in a ceaseless war for some 10 years with a mind-numbing toll: 5.5 million dead and 300,000 women raped.

Some say the most recent conflict in eastern Congo is being fueled and funded by a tussle for mineral resources that end up in cell phones, laptops and other electronics — deepening the stakes in a war that sprung out of the Rwandan genocide.

Rebel militias and Congolese army troops are fighting each other for control of mineral-rich land. They can then sell the raw materials they mine and use the proceeds to fund their activities and arms — which prolongs the conflict.

“The links are very clear between the mining activity going to finance these groups, and these armed groups we know have been benefiting financially from the mining areas,” said Lizzie Parsons, a member of the Congo team at London-based Global Witness, a non-governmental organization that investigates natural resource exploitation.

Congo’s present conflict stems from a rebellion started four years ago by renegade general Laurent Nkunda, who claimed the country’s transition to democracy had excluded the Tutsi ethnic group. Despite agreeing in January to a UN-brokered cease-fire, he resumed fighting in August.

He alleges the Congolese government has not protected ethnic Tutsis from the Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping slaughter half a million Rwandan Tutsis in 1994.

But analysts say that the heart of conflict is the struggle for minerals.

“In some ways (mineral exploitation) has become the means and the ends of the conflict,” said Jennifer Cooke, the director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in New York.

“There’s virtually no government control over the eastern Congo and much of the conflict there is a scramble at the local level and at the regional level for access to land and the minerals underneath them.”

Congo is awash with gold, diamonds and metals such as cassiterite and coltan used to weld small pieces together in electronics.

The area around the eastern provincial capital city of Goma, from which thousands of people fled and government soldiers retreated this week after Nkunda and his forces besieged it, is particularly mineral-rich.

There are several paths to the international market — mostly bound for Asian factories for use in electronics and devices such as mobile phones and portable music players, said Colin Thomas-Jensen of Enough Project, a Washington-based human rights organization that carries out field research into various African conflicts including Congo.

“Basically, the rebels control the mines. They are selling them to middlemen who sell them to the next buyer and it goes up the chain,” he said.

“There have been instances where minerals are simply backpacked ... taken to a small airstrip and taken out of the country by a small plane and presumably sold to a small dealer across the border,” he added.

The international value of Congo’s raw materials is demonstrated by a $9 billion deal between Congo’s state-owned mining company and a consortium of Chinese companies to extract 10.6 million tons of copper and 626,000 tons of cobalt in return for improving infrastructure.

During the 1998-2002 war, current President Joseph Kabila and his father Laurent, who was then president, sold off copper and diamond mining rights to Zimbabwe and Angola in exchange for their support. At that time, the government held the west of the country, while rebels led by Uganda and Rwanda controlled the northeast and east.

Parsons said Global Witness was trying to get companies in Congo and around the world to ask questions about the source of minerals and to get paper records.