Foreigners held in DR Congo for suspected gold smuggling

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Dr Congo authorities were Wednesday probing a major case of suspected gold trafficking in mineral-rich Nord-Kivu province after four foreigners were arrested with large quantities of gold and dollars.

The four, including an American and a Frenchman, were among eight foreigners arrested last week after they flew into Goma, Nord-Kivu's capital, aboard a private jet from Nigeria.

Nord-Kivu's provincial governor Julien Paluku said Monday the suspected gold trafficking was possibly for the benefit of one of the rebel groups active in the lawless region.

Wednesday, government spokesman Lambert Mende told AFP that the four foreigners had confessed to investigators that they paid 6.5 million dollars (4.7 million euros) to buy 310 kilos (682 pounds) of gold.

Mende added however that security agents recovered only 1.8 million dollars after the four were arrested.

Mende said 310 kilos of gold were seized during the arrest on February 3 while other sources earlier put the amount at up to 450 kilos.

He did not rule out that "(Congolese) troops may have been involved" in the trafficking.

Last September, DR Congo 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.

Armed groups reportedly linked to foreign governments and firms frequently clash over access to the region's huge reserves of tin, coltan and gold.

The four suspects -- an American, a Frenchman and two Nigerians -- were still in custody Wednesday, while the other four foreigners -- three Americans and a Nigerian who were members of the plane's crew -- were released.

The four suspects "are under surveillance in a hotel and are well treated," Paluku told AFP. "They don't deny that they were involved in a transaction (to buy gold)."

Sources said the twin-jet plane, which had flown in from the Nigerian capital Abuja but was based in the US city of Houston, was still grounded on the tarmac at Goma airport.

A UN source confirmed press reports that Congolese troops close to General Bosco Ntaganda, a former rebel leader wanted by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges, were seen near the plane carrying a parcel and metal cases from the plane soon after it landed.

Members of Dr Congo's Republican Guard, the former presidential guard, tried to intervene but were stopped by the troops, he added.

The UN source said civilian and army security agents finally moved in, seized the gold and the money, and arrested the four passengers.

Ntaganda, an ethnic Tutsi, is a former military chief of the rebel National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) which waged a bloody campaign in eastern Congo but defected to the government side in January 2009.

The International Criminal Court, based in The Hague, wants to try him for alleged offences in Congo's northeastern Ituri region, particularly enlisting child soldiers in 2002-2003.

Since then, international bodies including the European Union have urged DR Congo authorities to arrest Ntaganda, who has been brought into the country's army as a general.

Some officers close to Ntaganda, fellow ethnic Tutsis who had served in the CNDP, are routinely accused of controlling eastern Congo's mines.

The CNDP was previously led by renegade Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda and began its uprising in the Kivu hills in June 2003.

In October 2008, Nkunda's men routed the DR Congo army in Nord-Kivu and threatened to take Goma, near the border with Rwanda.

But after a shift in alliances, the Congolese and Rwandan armies in January 2009 launched an unprecedented joint operation targeting Rwandan Hutu rebels in eastern DR Congo, which also resulted in Nkunda's arrest.

© 2011 AFP

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