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Published by MAC on 2005-06-01

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Rights group: Major corporations profit from illicit Congo gold trade

CNN - Associated Press (AP)

1st June 2005

KINSHASA, Congo -- Competition over lucrative gold mines in mineral-rich northeastern Congo has enriched major corporations, empowered armed militias and led to the killing of thousands of residents, an international rights group said Wednesday.

Armed militia have also used profits from the trade to buy weapons and maintain power in the volatile east, Human Rights Watch said in a new report.

"Rather than bringing prosperity to the people of northeastern Congo, gold has been a curse to those who have the misfortune to live there," the New York-based rights group said.

The 159-page report accuses South African-based gold-mining giant AngloGold Ashanti -- part of the international mining conglomerate Anglo American -- of giving financial and logistical support to armed militia in return for gold concessions.

AngloGold Ashanti said it gave into a local militia's demands for a total of $9,000 on one occasion, but the invitation to explore mining areas in Ituri had come from Congo's government.

According to the report, one of Congo's current four vice presidents, former rebel chief Jean-Pierre Bemba, acknowledged giving AngloGold Ashanti permission to mine in the area.

The trade in gold, diamonds and other minerals helped fuel Congo's devastating 1998-2002 war, which saw neighboring Rwanda and Uganda pour thousands of troops into the country and make millions from the northeast's gold mines and trade routes.

Zimbabwe and Angola supported the government side in the west during the fighting, partly in return for mineral concessions.

In the northeast, both Rwanda and Uganda armed and trained ethnic Hema and Lendu militia as proxy forces to maintain control over territory. When the war ended, the two militias fought one another for the bounty, which they often used to buy weapons.

Between June 2002 and September 2004, at least 2,000 people -- including two U.N. military observers -- were slaughtered as Hema and Lendu militia fought five battles for the control of gold fields around Mongbwalu, 50 kilometers (30 miles) northwest of Bunia, capital of Ituri province, the report said.

Human Rights Watch said that in late 2003, AngloGold Ashanti struck a deal to exploit minerals in the area with leaders of the Lendu militia Nationalist and Integrationist Front, known for massacring thousands of Hema civilians in Ituri in recent years.

Thousands killed, tortured

During that time, the militia raped, murdered and tortured hundreds of people, according to the report, compiled from more than 150 interviews over a period of seven months in 2004 and 2005.

Human Rights Watch alleged AngloGold Ashanti representatives made payments to militia officials and lent them company vehicles. Militia members were also shuttled on company aircraft, and lived in homes on company property in Mongbwalu.

In a statement Wednesday, AngloGold Ashanti said that yielding to militia extortion was against its principles and condemned the practice, but admitted it had happened once, in Mongbwalu.

"That there was a breach of this principle in this instance, in that company employees yielded to the militia group FNI's act of extortion is regretted," the statement said. "As soon as it came to our attention we publicly acknowledged it, condemned it and said it would not happen again."

AngloGold Ashanti said actual exploration of gold near Mongbwalu didn't actually begin until 2005.

Ugandans accused

The Human Rights Watch report also tracked how Ugandan soldiers, with the aid of local militia, funneled millions worth of gold out of Congo during the war, most of it ending up in Switzerland.

In 2003 alone, an estimated $60 million worth of gold was pulled out of Congo and shipped to overseas refining corporations through Uganda, the report said.

The report listed Swiss gold refining company Metalor Technologies as having purchased illegal gold from Uganda. In a statement sent to Human Rights Watch, the company stated it believed the gold "was of legal origin" and vowed to never purchase gold from Uganda again.

Safety regulations in the mines were commonly ignored under Ugandan control, resulting in the 1999 collapse of the Gorumbwa mine in the Haut Uele district that killed some 100 people, according to the report.

Uganda has repeatedly denied being involved in illicit gold mining in eastern Congo, despite numerous reports in recent years by the United Nations and aid groups detailing its plundering.

A transitional, power-sharing government was established in Congo following the war, but has never had any real control over the lawless east.

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