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Congo's riches fuel its war

A 12-vehicle United Nations aid convoy went behind rebel lines Monday.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 4, 2008

Homeward bound: Displaced people were transported Monday back to their homes in Kibati, north of the key town of Goma in eastern Congo.

Karel Prinsloo/AP

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Luntukulu, Democratic Republic of Congo

As a United Nations aid convoy rolled past rebel lines, top European, US, and UN envoys continue to discuss how best to prevent the latest crisis from spiraling out of control.

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But many attempts to end Congo's conflict have failed, in part because wars that appear to be all about ethnicity are also about business. Hutu rebels claim to be taking refuge from a vengeful Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who blames them for the 1994 genocide of more than 800,000 Tutsis. But the rebels have built a militia by controlling the trade in tin, tungsten, and coltan.

The rebel army of Gen. Laurent Nkunda, which has now almost encircled the city of Goma, claims to be protecting his ethnic Tutsis, but he operates in areas rich in tin.

The rebels "are not in any areas that don't have minerals," says Joseph Mukind Kakez, a top government official in eastern Congo. He also blames his own government for its inability to control armed groups as well as ordinary Congolese, who buy and sell minerals from the armed groups, giving them the money to feed and rearm themselves and keep Congo's long conflict brewing.

"People ask: Who supports the armed groups?" he says. "It is we Congolese ourselves."

Efforts to stem the crisis

Tens of thousands of displaced Congolese are continuing to stream into Goma as General Nkunda's forces remain on the edge of the city. British and French foreign ministers arrived in Goma over the weekend to appeal for calm and to pledge their support for a humanitarian response to the estimated 1.4 million people displaced by conflict.

An aid convoy, the first in a week, arrived on Monday to provide food for 250,000 of those people, as UN negotiators pleaded with both the Congolese government and Nkunda's forces to find a peaceful settlement to the crisis.

Nkunda says his men will disarm and integrate into the national Army, as soon as the government expels the Hutu-led Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) from Congolese soil. The government says Nkunda must disarm first.

"They [the FDLR] will not leave the Congo because they have access to minerals that they can buy and sell; it is a problem to stop them," says Juvenal Tembeze, provincial chief for the ministry of mines in South Kivu Province. "For the FDLR, it is a matter of life and death. If you forbid them access to the mines they are ready to kill, and they will take it out on the civilian population."

Congo's riches: a curse?

Given its immense natural resources, the Congo should be one of the richest countries on earth, with an estimated $300 billion worth of timber, gold, diamonds, cobalt, copper, tin, and coltan. Nearly 80 percent of the world's known reserves of coltan – a key metal used in cellphones and video games – come from Congo. Yet instead of a blessing, Congo's riches have become a bane.

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