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DR Congo probes case of gold smuggling

KINSHASA, Feb 10 – DR Congo authorities were Wednesday trying to shed light on a murky case of suspected gold trafficking in mineral-rich Nord-Kivu province after four foreigners were arrested with large quantities of gold and dollars.

Four foreign "businessmen" — an American, a Frenchman and two Nigerians — were among eight foreigners arrested last week after they flew into Goma, Nord-Kivu\’s capital, aboard a private jet from Nigeria.

The four suspects 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.

Nord-Kivu governor Julien Paluku said the suspects came to Goma with "millions of dollars" to buy gold, 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 suspects 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 Paluku earlier put the amount at up to 450 kilos.

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)."

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The case has attracted considerable media interest as Paluku said investigators were scrambling to "identify local, national and international actors who destabilised the entire region."

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 by armed groups.

These armed groups reportedly linked to foreign mining firms as well as to regional governments, including Rwanda and Uganda, frequently clash over access to the region\’s huge reserves of tin, coltan and gold.

The exact circumstances of the arrest remain murky.

The twin-jet plane, registered in the United States under the number "N886DT", flew into Goma on February 3 on a flight from the Nigerian capital Abuja. Wednesday, it was still grounded on the tarmac at Goma airport.

Tuesday a military source said Congolese troops loyal to General Bosco Ntaganda, a former rebel leader wanted by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges, had been contacted by the traffickers last month and "agreed to help these thiefs with the aim of catching them."

But a UN source and Congolese dailies said the ex-rebels were directly implicated in the trafficking, notably Ntaganda.

Mende did not rule out that government troops might have been implicated in the gold trafficking but he exonerated Ntaganda.

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 and is now an army general.

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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.

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