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War Stops Congo Conflict Minerals Gains, Global Witness Says

Democratic Republic of Congo’s progress blocking the trade of so-called conflict minerals is under threat from widespread fighting in the country’s east, U.K. advocacy group Global Witness said.

Congolese soldiers who deserted the army last month are experienced smugglers of tin ore and gold and will turn to the illicit mineral trade to support their rebellion, the group said in a report published today. The fighting has made it “difficult to manage” programs monitoring eastern Congo’s mineral trade, Mines Minister Martin Kabwelulu said by mobile-phone message today in response to the report.

“This latest upheaval may put a dent in the confidence of international buyers considering sourcing ores” from eastern Congo, Global Witness said. “This, needless to say, would have negative implications for the nascent efforts to establish a trade in conflict-free minerals.”

For more than a decade, armed groups and some members of the Congolese army have funded their rebellions and enriched themselves through mineral sales. Congo’s Mines Ministry is trying to implement tracing programs to ensure trading doesn’t fund conflict. Eastern Congo has deposits of tin ore, gold, tungsten, and coltan, an ore used in electronics.

General Deserts

In recent years, Congolese General Bosco Ntaganda has controlled many of the area’s smuggling networks, according to United Nations reports in 2010 and 2011. Ntaganda, wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, deserted the army last month with about 300 soldiers amid rumors of his impending arrest. Around 100,000 people have fled fighting between the army and rebels allied to him, according to the UN.

Neighboring Rwanda is a primary transit point for smuggled minerals, Global Witness said, in spite of tagging and tracing programs the country has in place. Ntaganda was born in Rwanda and one of his former rebel groups was supported by the country, according to the UN.

“Research conducted by Global Witness in March 2012 revealed that large quantities of untagged Congolese minerals are making their way into Rwandan supply chains, often in full view of the Congolese and Rwandan authorities,” the advocacy group said in its report.

Michael Biryabarema, director of Rwanda’s Geology and Mines Authority, did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment and three calls made to his mobile phone did not connect.

Trading Suspensions

In January, the authority gave six-month suspensions to four Rwandan mineral traders for dealing in untagged material, Rwanda’s New Times reported in March, citing Biryabarema.

Most Western companies have stopped buying minerals from eastern Congo because of the conflict, the North Kivu provincial mines ministry says. Congo’s share of world tin sales dropped from about 4 percent in 2008 to 2 percent last year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Earlier this month, Kabwelulu suspended two suppliers of tin ore to China based in North Kivu for allegedly buying minerals from mines that weren’t approved as “conflict-free.”

Rwanda’s foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, summoned the head of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo to explain why the organization “is spreading false rumors aimed at aggravating the volatile situation” in Congo’s east, according to an e-mailed statement today.

Advocacy group Human Rights Watch was preparing a new report based on “recycled rumors” that implicates Rwanda in the fighting, she said. Mushikiwabo on May 28 rejected a UN report that said some rebels had been trained in Rwanda.

“The Rwandan government should investigate the allegations that support for the mutineers in Congo may be coming from Rwanda and take appropriate action to stop it,” Human Rights Watch senior Africa researcher, Anneke Van Woudenberg, said in an e-mailed comment.

Madnodje Mounoubai, UN spokesman in Congo, did not answer a phone call today seeking comment.

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