DRCongo fines, frees foreigners in gold probe

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The Democratic Republic of Congo has freed two Americans, a Frenchman and two Nigerians accused of gold smuggling after they paid a three-million-dollar fine, the attorney general said Saturday.

The men -- four businessmen and a US pilot -- were arrested early February after flying into Goma, the main city in the DR Congo's east, in a private jet with 6.5 million dollars (around 4.7 million euros) in cash.

Security services also seized about 400 kilogrammes (880 pounds) of gold, according to authorities in Nord-Kivu province.

The government said the men had confessed to illegally buying gold.

Under Congo law, legal proceedings can be ended by payment of a fine and "it was proposed to all the accused, who accepted, that they pay the most severe fine," attorney general Flory Kabagne said in a statement.

They paid three million dollars all together and were freed, he said.

Investigations were continuing to identify where the gold had come from, the statement said.

The men had been investigated for money laundering and purchase and illegal possession of mineral substances.

Illegal trade in the region's abundant mineral wealth is said to fuel the conflict that has ravaged the area for years.

The men were held after arriving in Goma "carrying a sum of 6.5 million dollars contained in two suitcases to finalise the purchase of gold in a transaction started some months before in Nairobi, Kenya," Kabagne's statement said.

Nord-Kivu governor Julien Paluku had said they could have been involved with one of the networks working with armed groups that are alleged to finance themselves through the mineral trade.

Congolese soldiers close to General Bosco Ntaganda, a former rebel who integrated the army in 2009 with his men, are also suspected of involvement.

The general's men were seen close to the plane, and carrying a package and metal cases, before the security forces intervened.

Last September President Joseph Kabila ordered a halt to all mining activity in the eastern provinces of Nord-Kivu, Sud-Kivu and Maniema in a bid to crack down on the illicit trade in a host of coveted minerals by armed groups.

The ban was lifted in March.

© 2011 AFP

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