By David Lewis
KINSHASA – Congo’s army has turned to gold smuggling and militia disarmament programmes are failing in the violence-prone northeast, setting back efforts to pacify the country before elections, officials said on Tuesday.
Months before Con
golese are due to vote freely for the first time in 40 years, violence is increasing in Ituri district, where 60,000 civilians have been killed since 1999 in ethnic clashes and fighting to control the gold trade and taxation.
Logistical delays, political squabbles and festering violence in areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo like Ituri are delaying the vote which is unlikely to be before end-July.
Government soldiers were sent to restore order in Ituri, where renegade militias have looted and killed long after the official end in 2003 of Congo’s five-year war. But the troops themselves have been harassing civilians, encouraging disarmed fighters to rejoin militia groups, local officials said.
Joint army operations with U.N. peacekeepers have been put on hold after troops mutinied.
“Militias are recruiting again. What are these people expected to do if they have nothing else?”, Ituri District Commissioner Petronille Vaweka told Reuters by phone from the capital, Bunia.
“The disarmament and reintegration programmes have not worked. Most of these people have gone back into the bush,” said a U.N. official, who asked not to be named.
Corruption among senior army officers and abuses by poorly paid rank and file soldiers were also undermining operations.
“The officers are involved in gold smuggling while other elements of the army have been giving ammunition over to the militia in exchange for cows,” the U.N. source said.
Accused of failing to stop attacks on civilians, U.N. peacekeepers and units of the fledgling Congolese army went on the offensive in 2005, using hundreds of soldiers and helicopter gunships to attack militia camps.
Over 16,000 gunmen signed up to a series of U.N.-backed disarmament programmes aimed at giving former fighters a chance to live as civilians.
But Congolese and U.N. officials say militia numbers are swelling again, with one source estimating them to have over 3,000 fighters.
Militias have buried their ethnic differences and are now fighting under a loose coalition, known as the Revolutionary Movement of Congo (MRC).
In contrast, corruption was eroding army morale.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said it had documented two cases of the Congolese army being involved in smuggling gold out of Ituri since they took over control of Mongbwalu, a mining town previously controlled by the militias.
“We have documented in the past a tendency of gold trading leading to human rights abuses in this part of Congo,” senior HRW researcher Anneke Van Woudenberg told Reuters.
Conditions for civilians in Ituri have degenerated recently. Tens of thousands have been forced to leave their homes, while aid workers have little or no access to the displaced due to the insecurity. Some have received death threats.
“The Congolese army is the main problem, not the militia. We have lost a year and a half’s progress in Ituri,” one aid worker, who asked not to be named, said.
Some four million people have died since the start of Congo’s war in 1998, which sucked in six neighbouring countries. Aid workers say 1,000 people continue to die every day, mostly from war-related hunger and disease. — Reuter