What is the cause of the fighting in the Congo?

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"What do you think is the reason for this war?" asked a diamond buyer named Papa Ben,
who plies his trade in Kisangani.
... "It's only about the riches of this country."


Greed for diamonds

According to revelations from the writer and historian, Ludo De Witte, archives from the Belgian Foreign Ministry show that senior politicians in Brussels had master minded the breakaway of the state of Katanga.

Congo's richest province, Katanga, led by Patrice Lumumba's long time enemy Moise Tschombe, announced it was seceding. Belgian troops helped secure the breakaway state. The vast profits made from Katanga's mineral riches - copper, diamonds, gold and uranium - had always flowed back to Belgium. Whoever controlled Katanga had domain over most of Congo's wealth.

January 16, 2001

Only about a third of Congo's annual diamond production is being sold through the country's official market, according to diamond experts in Antwerp. They say the rest is being smuggled away for sale in bordering countries.

By far the biggest diamond prize in the Congo is more than 1,000 miles to the southwest of Kisangani, near the city of Mbuji Mayi. Diamond experts say President Kabila has allocated a substantial percentage of that huge diamond complex to Zimbabwe, which has sent 11,000 troops to prop up Mr. Kabila's wobbly government.

So Zimbabwe has recently become a major diamond exporter, although it has a negligible local industry.

With their eyes on the prize at Mbuji Mayi, large numbers of Congolese rebels and supporting troops from Rwanda began massing about a year ago to the north and east of the city. If they take the diamond mines there, many military experts believe, Zimbabwe would lose its will to fight and Mr. Kabila's government would probably fall.

By the rules of Congo, the guy with the gun got the diamond. Even when the stones are taken from the ground using the most sophisticated equipment, the game is roughly the same.

In northeast Angola, the Catoca diamond mine one of a half dozen such sites in that Texas-sized country is an island of modernity in a sea of civil war. Huge earthmovers gouge out the diamond-bearing earth and feed it into a sorting plant, where water, electric vibrators and X-rays separate out about $8 million worth of diamonds a month, an amount expected to quadruple as the mine expands.

For years, the United States and the white government of South Africa supported Unita, an acronym in Portuguese for the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, as a counter to the Moscow-backed government in Luanda. But with the end of the cold war and of apartheid, Unita lost its military patrons. International isolation deepened when Mr. Savimbi, its leader, lost an election in Angola 1992.

Rather than accept a vote foreign observers judged free and fair, Mr. Savimbi returned to the bush and resumed war against the Angolan government. His fighters seized control of the Cuango River valley, Angola's richest diamond territory, and began a major mining operation that more than compensated for the lost cold-war aid, and made them the richest rebels in Africa.

At Andulo, Unita's headquarters in the central highlands of Angola, Mr. Savimbi personally haggled with arms merchants and diamond traders who flew in from Europe. The rebel boss bargained using small bags of diamonds, each of which contained several million dollars worth of gems, according to Robert R. Fowler, the Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and chairman of a committee that investigated violations of the embargo against Unita.

"If the price was $22 million, Savimbi would reach down for four of those bags and two of those," Mr. Fowler said. "The arms dealers had their diamond experts, and Savimbi had his, and they would inspect the diamonds to see if they really were worth $22 million. And then they haggled some more and somebody would throw in an extra bag of diamonds, and off the arms dealers flew."

Mr. Savimbi became a major buyer on the international arms scene. Giant Russian-made Il-76 cargo planes made as many as 22 deliveries a night at Andulo, said Mr. Fowler. The primary source for most of the arms was Bulgaria, the report said, although Bulgarian officials deny it.

The United Nations waited nearly six years before imposing an embargo on Unita diamonds, even though there was never any doubt what Mr. Savimbi was doing with his little bags. With an estimated $3 billion in legal diamond sales, he built Unita into a highly mobile war machine with 35,000 well-armed troops. By the early summer of last year, Unita seemed on the verge of toppling the government in Angola.

The rebels were turned back only because the government went on a $500-million weapons-buying spree of its own, financed by Western oil companies that paid the government more than $900 million for rights to new offshore oil finds.

Although Unita's sales of diamonds are down sharply from the mid-1990's, the United Nations report said gems continued to play a "uniquely important role" for the rebels.


Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone

The Revolutionary United Front, a rebel outfit that barters diamonds for weapons, was trying early last year to conquer Freetown.

The leader of the Sierra Leone rebels, Foday Sankoh, has established a lucrative partnership with his longtime Liberian friend, Charles Taylor, the rebel-boss-turned-president. Both had training in Libya, both their rebellions began in the late 1980's, and their armies have helped each other fight.

Mr. Sankoh's access to the world's diamond bourses and to arms was secured when Mr. Taylor was elected president of Liberia in 1997. The Liberian government denies this trade, as does Mr. Sankoh.

But a number of diplomats, international relief officials and mining experts say there is persuasive evidence. Liberia was a marginal exporter of diamonds until the mid-1990's. Since then it has it exported some 31 million carats more than 200 years' worth of its own national capacity, according to trading records in Antwerp.

After Mr. Sankoh failed to take Freetown last year, he signed a peace deal granting his rebels amnesty for war crimes. The deal, which was brokered by the United Nations, also gave him a government job chairman of the Strategic Minerals Commission, which controls diamond mining.


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What is the cause of the fighting in the Congo?

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