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Congo army engaged in orgy of criminality: UN

Men pass buckets of dirt which they will sift through while looking for gold March 27, 2006 in Mongbwalu, Congo.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images/Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Whenever a military officer descends on a Canadian-owned mining property in eastern Congo, the payoff to the officer from a local mining boss is a cool 50 grams of gold - worth more than $2,000 (U.S.).

Fuelled by these kinds of bribes and extorted money from the mining sector, much of Congo's military has become a Mafia-like criminal organization with a financial interest in perpetuating one of the world's bloodiest and longest-running wars, a new United Nations report concludes.

The UN report helps to explain why the Congo war has dragged on for so many years, leaving more than five million people dead by some estimates. Instead of fighting the rebels and halting the chaos, Congo's army is much more interested in seizing mines, stealing minerals and extorting money from miners.

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"Criminal, Mafia-type organizations within FARDC (the Congolese army) divert its already limited resources toward private economic tasks," according to the report to the UN Security Council, released this week.

"Commanding officers make decisions regarding deployments and operations against armed groups on the basis of the economic attractiveness of the particular zone," the report concludes.

"Officers often send individual staff officers on missions to transport investment funds and buy, sell and oversee mining activities in pits. … FARDC logistical capacities, including official vehicles and trucks, are frequently used for private business affairs, such as the transport of natural resources."

The UN report comes as the United States increases the pressure on retailers to report whether their store-brand goods - such as cellphones and other mobile devices - contain minerals from war-torn Central Africa. The requirement, part of the Dodd-Frank financial law passed in July, aims to pressure companies to spurn so-called conflict minerals - tin, tantalum, tungsten or gold from parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo or neighbouring countries.

A Canadian mining company, Banro Corp. of Toronto, has found one of its gold properties caught up in the orgy of criminality by Congo's national army. Military officers routinely arrive at the site to seize gold and bribes from the artisanal miners who are swarming over the property, the UN says.

The mining site, Lugushwa, is a town of about 28,000 people, more than 70 per cent of whom are involved in artisanal mining. All of its 30 mining locations are owned by Banro, but the Toronto-based company has not yet begun its mining operations, so the artisanal miners are frantically trying to maximize their profits before they are forced to leave the site.

Simon Village, executive chairman of Banro Corp., confirmed that "security agencies" were involved in artisanal mining at the company's property at Lugushwa. Two weeks ago, the provincial Interior Minister was informed of their activities, and a regional administrator was suspended for allowing the artisanal mining to expand into a full-scale operation in defiance of an official ban, Mr. Village said.

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Banro, which has invested about $200-million in its Congo operations, says it is planning to move the artisanal miners into more sustainable businesses. The company is aiming to open its first gold mine by the end of next year, at its Twangiza site, not far from Lugushwa. In the meantime, it has opened a health clinic and a training centre at Lugushwa, and it is building schools and water purification projects across the region.

The commander of the local army unit has been collecting monthly and weekly "taxes" and "contributions" from thousands of miners at Lugushwa, the report says. It said the commander would "arrive at productive pits at any time and simply seize any minerals not protected by higher-ranking officers."

A competing military group within the national army has sent its own "intelligence unit" to Lugushwa to seize mines or collect a portion of their production. This unit is commonly known as the "harassment unit," the report says. "Diggers could be spared from constant intimidation in exchange for a portion of their production."

This military unit has commandeered its own mine at Lugushwa, with 60 diggers working in it, the report says. One of its senior officers would often mount his own fake operations against the rebels "as a pretext to visit mining sites and survey which pits were producing or not, apparently for purposes of extortion."

The most prominent manager of a mining pit in Lugushwa, who was interviewed by the UN researchers, admitted that he gives about 50 grams of gold to every visiting army officer. He also admitted that he was conducting his mining business on behalf of an army general.

The report also documents evidence that the army was colluding with Hutu rebels at Lugushwa to extort and loot the local population.

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The UN report concludes that Congo's army officers "jostle for control over mineral-rich areas at the expense of civilian protection." One notorious militia group, responsible for the rape of more than 300 people in July and August, was created by "a criminal network within FARDC," the report says.

In addition to gold mining, the military is also heavily involved in a wide range of other illegal business activities, including tin-ore mining, elephant poaching and the destruction of forests for the charcoal trade, the report says.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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