Gold smuggling a way of life in east Congo

The Associated Press
Saturday, March 5, 2011; 11:20 AM

BUKAVU, Congo -- The tip-off led intelligence agents to an American jet loaded with half a ton of gold, a Houston diamond merchant and a car chase that produced $6.8 million.

But since the Feb. 5 bust on gold smuggling in Congo, more than $5 million and 198 pounds (90 kilograms) of the gold have disappeared, according to official and banking sources who would not speak on the record for fear of reprisals.

The latest report about alleged gold smuggling stands out only because it has been made public, because of the huge amounts of gold and money involved, and because foreigners are being held. Congo's Ministry of Mines estimates that some 80 percent of the country's mineral production is smuggled out of the country, on planes, by road and by barge.

On Friday, the leaders of Congo and Kenya met to announce a joint investigation into mineral smuggling, which thrives despite a recent ban in Congo on mineral exploitation and trade in three eastern provinces. The danger is very real: A customs officer in Kenya was gunned down in what his family is calling a crime related to his investigation of smuggled gold from Congo.

Congo's government says it has detained American Edward "Carlos" St. Mary, a diamond merchant from a Houston society family; Nigerian Mickey Lawal, half brother of Nigerian-born Houston oil tycoon Kase Lawal; French businessman Franck Stephane M'Bemba; Nigerian businessman Alexander Adeola Ehinmola and three American crew members.

All are being held on suspicion of gold smuggling, under guard at the Hotel Ihusi in Goma and not allowed to receive phone calls. Under Congolese law, if a person is suspected of a crime that carries a sentence of more than six months, they can be held for up to 112 days without charge.

Kenyan lawyer Punit Vadgama says his client, St. Mary, is the victim of an elaborate con and never intended to do anything illegal. It is not known if the other detainees have lawyers acting for them.

Eastern Congo in many ways resembles the old Wild West of the United States - only wilder, and much more dangerous.

Tribal tensions exploded after French troops allowed Rwandan genocide perpetrators to escape across the border in 1994. Tribal conflict segued into a civil war that soon ballooned into what some call Africa's World War - armies from eight African nations and 25 local militias and foreign rebel groups fought above all for control of Congo's massive mineral reserves. Millions died.

The foreign troops withdrew after an internationally brokered peace agreement in 2003. But the leaders and generals of some countries had been given questionable mining rights in Congo during the war, in exchange for their troops, and still are involved in some deals.

Mining in east Congo fuels the conflict, paying for arms and making many commanders reluctant to give up a lucrative source of income.

Congo's east, a vast and stunningly beautiful terrain of lush mountains and forested and swampy plains, remains a frontierland subject to no man's law. Rebels from neighboring Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda continue to fight, along with local militias and a national army. All these armed groups are involved in mining, from fighters who do the digging themselves, to those who force captured civilians to do it for them, to those who take a cut from artisanal miners.

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