Gold keeps war in the DRC on the boil

In a haze of dust, wearing ear mufflers against the clang of machines, Lobano Kalimbiro smashes red rocks rich in tin ore with a metal hammer, working up a sweat in a trade that fuelled central Africa’s biggest war and may spawn another.

The Democratic Republic of Congo and its tiny but militarily powerful neighbour Rwanda have fought two major wars in this part of eastern the DRC, coveted for its gold, tin ore, rare gems and other metals.

Now, officials and analysts say, rising metals prices have intensified competition for eastern DRC’s riches, adding to worries of renewed fighting between the armies of Rwanda and the DRC.

“Rwanda lives economically off Congo’s back now, through a mafia-like exploitation of the zones it has occupied,” says the DRCs Information Minister Henri Mova, resuming his country’s gripes against its number one enemy Rwanda.

Mova said Rwanda was “inventing” claims that it is threatened by ethnic Hutu militias in the DRC, as a pretext for incursions aimed at keeping control of key resources: particularly the east’s lucrative mines.

Rwandan presidential aide Richard Sezibera said by telephone from Kigali that allegations it was plundering the DRC were “infantile” and denied Rwanda was backing any factions in the country.

Rwanda threatened to invade the DRC for a third time last November, citing, as it has before, the presence of Rwandan Hutu militias who have been in the DRC since carrying out the 1994 Rwandan genocide of over 500 000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

The DRC’s last war in 1998-2002 sucked in at least four other nations and led to over three million deaths, mostly through hunger and disease. It was triggered by a Rwandan and Ugandan invasion to rout the Hutu rebels.

The struggle for control of resources “continues to be a factor in this war,” which still simmers although it is officially over, said Anneka Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch in London.

The United Nations—which has its largest force worldwide in the DRC—has increasingly been sucked into the fighting, with nine peacekeepers killed in the northeast in a clash this month.

Along the DRC-Rwanda border, competition over tin ore helps spark fighting.

Prices are now at a ten-year high, making control of the mines a key concern for armed groups in the east of the DRC.

New environmental regulations in Japan and Western Europe, forcing manufacturers to use tin instead of lead in printed circuit boards, are a major factor driving up demand and prices.

Until a price slump in 2002, the last hot thing was a rare metallic compound called coltan, used in power-storing components for cell phones and computer game consoles.
Illegally smuggled coltan exports from the eastern DRC helped finance Rwanda’s army and its proxies during the last war, according to reports by a UN panel of experts in 2001 and 2002. The panel made similar allegations against Uganda and Zimbabwe, and made an unheeded call for financial restrictions on companies and individuals involved in the plunder.

Coltan prices have climbed in the DRC from $18 a pound in October to $32 now.

Although Rwanda claimed to have pulled its troops from the DRC after a 2003 peace accord, many still remain, alleges Congolese Information Minister Mova.

United Nations researchers have backed Mova’s claims, saying in a January 2005 report that they are “cognizant of the presence” of Rwandan troops in eastern DRC.

The UN has accused Rwanda of backing renegade troops in the east who have fought forces loyal to Congolese President Joseph Kabila since mid-2004, raising fears that the DRC’s government of national union could fall apart and a fragile peace process break down.

Control over mineral resources is a “significant factor” in some of the fighting, just as it was in the last war in the DRC, the United Nations said.

In successive clashes last year, Kabila loyalists forced the allegedly Rwandan-backed renegade factions to retreat from areas rich in tin ore and coltan.

The loyalist advances affect Rwanda’s business interests in that region, said Kojo Bedu-Addo of London-based Control Risks security consultancy.

In Bukavu, metals trader Byaboshi Muyeye—Kalimbiro’s boss—watches men in ripped T-shirts haul sacks of tin ore into the back of one of his trucks.

“This came from Walikale,” he said. Until mid-December, “that’s where the Rwandans were. Nobody else could have access.”

In his office, Muyeye pulls out from his drawer a packet of red, green and clear crystal bars: tourmaline, a gemstone with some industrial uses that, according to ancient Egyptian legend, travelled along a rainbow as it was created by the earth, picking up all its colors.

The tourmaline business also was dominated by Rwandan soldiers, but they have been chased away and Muyeye is now looking to trade the stones himself, he said.

Many millions of dollars in trade are at stake.

The most recent official figures show the value of tin ore exports in 2002 at $1-million and coltan exports at $2,2-million in 2003, but the real figures may be many times this. The statistics do not include reported smuggling to Rwanda and other neighbours in light aircraft.

Other minerals also abound in the eastern DRC border area with Rwanda, including gold—a trade which the mines ministry says is dominated by Burundian smugglers—and wolfremite, a metal used in making tungsten steel.

Diamonds—the DRC’s main export, worth $1,3-billion in 2003—are also believed to be routinely smuggled across the border, although they mostly come from more distant areas.

Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch accused Western-based companies of collaborating in illegal Congolese trade and called for stricter monitoring by the countries where they are headquartered. - Sapa-AP

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