Minerals fuel DRC war
Bunia - Ethnic militias backed by neighbouring states who battled this year in the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo are ravaging the hard-to-reach region for its untapped mineral resources.
DRC's volatile Ituri province, where a multinational UN force is taking over from a French-led force on Monday to prevent deadly inter-ethnic clashes, is home to rich deposits of gemstones, various minerals and oil.
"Foreign powers, with the collaboration of our Congolese friends, are organising wars with our country's resources," Emmanuel Kataliko, the late archbishop of Bukavu in northeastern DRC, said in 1999.
"Our country, and we ourselves, have become an object to be exploited," he added.
Colette Braeckman, a Belgian journalist and expert on central Africa's Great Lakes region, said the archbishop's analysis "identified the cause of multiple conflicts that are laying waste to DRC: the draw of resources in a country that is undoubtedly one of the last 'wild west' zones on earth."
In her book, The New Predators, Braeckman explains that in the era of economic globalisation, "there are no more taboos. The entire world has become fair game for multinational corporations looking for short-term profits."
Deposits of diamonds, copper, coal, iron, cobalt, uranium, tin, niobium and coltan are largely untouched in DRC, she says, as opposed to most other parts of the world, where mineral deposits are nearly or totally tapped out.
Coltan is a rare ore found in commercial quantities in eastern DRC that is refined into metallic tantalum, a costly material used in cellphones, laptop computers and other small electronic devices.
Hydrocarbon deposits located under Lake Kivu and Lake Albert, located near the powder-keg town of Bunia in Ituri province, are also highly coveted.
Illegally mined ores and gems are smuggled through the capitals of Rwanda and Uganda, which border DRC, or through Zimbabwe to the south - and then sold throughout the world.
All three countries have been involved in DRC's civil war, launched in 1998 and supposedly ended by a peace deal formalised in April, which has left about 2,5 million people dead, either in combat or through disease and malnutrition.
But fighting has raged in various parts of DRC since then, notably in the Ituri region, where inter-tribal fighting has killed 50 000 people since 1999.
In a report to the UN Security Council in October last year, a panel of experts accused "elite networks" of high-ranking DRC officials and foreign countries of using the war as a front to plunder DRC of its natural resources.
"The elite networks maintain the facade of rebel administrations in the occupied areas" to generate and then steal public revenues, it said.
"The looting that was previously conducted by the armies themselves has been replaced by organized systems of embezzlement, tax fraud, extortion, the use of stock options as kickbacks and diversion of state funds."