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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 June, 2005, 19:45 GMT 20:45 UK
Gold rush fuels DR Congo's pain
By Elizabeth Blunt
BBC News

A baby at a refugee camp in Ituri, eastern DR Congo
Thousands fled their homes amid militia violence in Bunia
The New York-based pressure group Human Rights Watch has published a damning report about the exploitation of the rich gold fields which lie in the conflict zones in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It says ethnic militias, armed Congolese factions, the governments of neighbouring countries and international companies all turn a blind eye to the most appalling brutality in their scramble for gold

This report is about gold, and about greed.

It is absolutely no coincidence that some of the bitterest fighting in the DR Congo conflict and some of the most abominable treatment of civilians has taken place near Bunia in Ituri District, the site of one of Africa's richest goldfields.

Ugandan and Rwandan troops and a whole range of armed factions and militias fought over the area.

One local resident told Human Rights Watch: "Every time there was a change of armed group, the first thing they did was start digging for gold."

Miners criticised

This report details what happened during the conflict - rape, summary executions, ethnic killings and forced labour in the mines.

There was a complete disregard of safety standards, with miners even being ordered to demolish the rock pillars holding up the roof of one mine to get at the gold in the rock. Around 100 miners were killed when the mine collapsed.

The authors of the report accept that some commanders, and Ugandan and Rwandan army officers, did from time to time try to restrain some of the worst excesses of the local militias, but says no-one has ever been prosecuted or held responsible for any of the abuses and massacres.

The report also criticises one of Africa's best-known mining companies.

Ashanti Goldfields - which later became AngloGold Ashanti - got its mining concession for Mongbwalu from the government in Kinshasa.

But it started to work there when the area was outside government control, and in the hands of a particularly brutal armed group called the FNI.

The company denies that it had any working relationship with the FNI, but did admit to Human Rights Watch that on one occasion it paid the group $8,000 (4,400) - under duress, it said, when the FNI threatened the safety of its staff and assets.

Human Rights Watch says the decision by AngloGold Ashanti to work in a context of violence and conflict put the company "on the thin edge of ethical and responsible business".

'Tainted gold'

In the view of the authors, everyone who benefited from this free-for-all in the goldfields was complicit in the abuse.

UN peacekeeper holding gun handed over by Congolese militiaman
The UN has been attempting to disarm the militias
It points out the profits made by Uganda, which exported nearly $60m worth of gold in 2002.

Yet Uganda only produced $25,000 worth of gold itself that year, and recorded no legal imports.

Human Rights Watch says gold smuggled out of DR Congo pays no taxes and duties and brings almost no benefit to the Congolese population.

Most of that gold - "tainted gold" according to Human Rights Watch - ends up in Switzerland, far away from the miserable and violent conditions in which it was produced.

They say that it is the chain of Congolese middlemen, Ugandan traders and international companies which together provide the revenue stream which buys the weapons to prolong the suffering in north-eastern DR Congo.

Witnesses describe atrocities they have seen

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