Fighters loyal to Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda have drawn within six miles of Goma, the capital of the country’s North Kivu province and a transit point for mineral exports. United Nations peacekeepers, backing Congolese troops, deployed tanks and helicopter gunships on Monday in an effort to protect the city of around 800,000 people from the rebel advance.
M23 rebels stand on a road after their troops entered the town of Rutshuru, near the Ugandan border on Sunday.
Goma hosts dozens of mineral trading companies, mainly from Asia. Before the most recent fighting erupted—upending three years of relative peace—$50 million in minerals was being shipped from Goma every month, according to the North Kivu Miners Association.
The new fighting could put mining corridors in the hands of rebels and militias; fights to divvy up proceeds would exacerbate the conflict.
Over the weekend, the rebels forced thousands of locals and government troops to flee as towns near Goma were seized, according to military and aid officials.
“Rebels are controlling most roads north of Goma,” said Emmanuel Ndimubanzi, the head of North Kivu Miners Association. “They are not safe for traders and miners.”
More than 16,000 refugees have entered Uganda from Congo in the past week, overwhelming humanitarian officials, Uganda’s minister in charge of relief and refugees, Stephen Malinga said Monday. Refugees are crowded in transit centers in the border town of Bunagana, without basic facilities, as they wait for proper resettlement.
The conflict between government troops and the rebels has forced up to 200,000 refugees to flee the fighting since April, seeking refuge in Uganda and Rwanda, according to the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR.
The M23 rebels—named after the date in March 2009 when the former rebels signed a now-defunct peace deal with the Congolese government—have already captured the Congolese side of Bunagana, which serves as an export corridor for minerals.
Many of the rebels defected from the Congolese army. They now say they want to enter talks with the government over the poor pay they received. “If the government agrees to negotiate, rebel fighters are ready to withdraw from most of the captured towns and hand them on the U.N. peacekeepers,” said rebel commander Sultani Makenga.
Mineral-rich eastern Congo accounts for around 80% of the country’s tin, and is also a source of the blue-gray metal tantalum, an ingredient for components in personal computing devices. Congo is the world’s third-largest source of Tantalum, accounting for roughly 10% of global production.
Goma is also one of the country’s main transit centers for diamonds and gold mined in the region.
Most miners have remained small in scale, largely because of the looming violence. The bulk of the minerals that pass through Goma and Bunagana are processed in nearby Rwanda and Uganda.
The region has been squeezed, however, by U.S. legislation passed last year to purge conflict minerals from the global supply chain. The Dodd-Frank Act requires U.S.-listed companies to exercise due diligence on the minerals they procure from Congo to ensure they don’t fund war.
As multinational traders have stepped back, traders from China and India have bought up supply, though what artisanal miners bring out of the ground often fails to meet export standards.
The Congo government, in response to the legislation, has stopped formal exports of tin ore as well as other minerals, says John Kanyoni, who heads the exporters association for North Kivu. That hasn’t stopped the mineral trade, though.
“Exploitation just changes hands from artisanal miners to armed groups,” says Claude Kabemba, head of Africa Resource Watch.
Meanwhile, multinational miners say so far their mining operations and supply routes remain unaffected by the fighting. AngloGold Ashanti Ltd., Africa’s largest gold producer, which is developing two mines in the Congo, said its operations are about 500 kilometers (300 miles) away from the fighting near Goma, but that it will “continuously monitor the situation.”
The rebels are believed loyal to the militia leader Gen. Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court over war crime charges. In April, he defected along with hundreds of troops amid international calls to have him arrested. His mutiny followed the ICC’s conviction of his former rebel boss, Thomas Rubanga.