KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo, April 23 (UPI) -- Former rebel fighters in the Democratic Republic of Congo have seized rich mineral mines in the eastern part of the country and are forcing civilians, including children, to work them, the Global Witness group reports.
This has intensified a seemingly interminable 12-year-old war over the central African state's vast mineral resources, deemed the bloodiest conflict since World War II.
Global Witness, an international non-governmental organization that investigates and campaigns to prevent natural resource-related conflicts, said former fighters of the National Congress for the Defense of the People -- known by its French acronym CNDP -- have taken over mines that had been held by another rebel group in Kivu province.
The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda controlled the region for years until 2009 when they were driven out in a joint offensive by the Congolese army and U.N. peacekeepers. The CNDP fighters had been incorporated into the army at that time.
These fighters have broken away now that they have got their hands on the largest tin ore mine in the eastern Congo and other lucrative mining operations.
The militiamen are "running violent extortion rackets which prey on the civilian population they are supposed to protect," Global Witness says.
"At one mine in South Kivu under the control of an army brigade led by former CNDP commanders, diggers -- many of them children -- are forced to pay $10 for permission just to work a night in the mine shafts," the Washington organization reports.
"Failure to pay up leads to a whipping -- and then the soldiers rob them anyway …This is more than isolated violence -- it is a systematic extortion racket designed to maximize profit and consolidate power."
The Congo has been ravaged by war since 1996. The first conflict came to a halt in 1997 but erupted again with greater ferocity in 1998 and continues to this day despite formally ending in July 2003.
It is the largest war in modern Africa and has directly involved at least eight states as well as a bewildering array of at least 25 armed groups.
The DRC's immense mineral wealth and natural resources are the primary focus of this seemingly endless conflict.
Global Witness observes that "mineral exploitation and trade in the DRC has proven so lucrative that it has become almost an end in itself for all the warring parties -- from the official (army) brigades to the numerous and shape-shifting rebel coalitions."
An estimated 6 million people have perished in the war and its chaotic aftermath. That makes the Second Congo War the deadliest conflict since World War II.
The various states in the Great Lakes region where the fighting has raged have largely financed their military forces by plundering its minerals, timber, diamonds and other resources from the eastern Congo.
There are also large deposits of cassiterite, or tin ore; widely used in the electronics industry; wolframite, the ore for tungsten which is used to manufacture mobile phones; and coltan, which is used to manufacture laptop computers and mobile phones.
This has greatly enriched the military leaders of Uganda and Rwanda, who have been at the forefront of the conflict and become more concerned with holding onto the regions they control than with any ideological or political beliefs.
Global Witness and other human rights organizations have sought to cut off these warlords' source of income by pressuring international companies from doing business with them.
They have had some successes but the global demand for Congo's resources has overcome many moral arguments. Global Witness and U.N. investigators recently identified several major conglomerates that continue to deal with the warlords through middlemen who give them plausible deniability.
The Kinshasa government has declared a crackdown on forces in resource-rich Katanga province it says are smuggling minerals to neighboring states.
Given the government's inability to exert meaningful control over such far-flung regions as Katanga, Kinshasa's declaration has a hollow ring.
"The trick for any ruler in Kinshasa is to force Katanga to pay its share of royalties to the central government while allowing the provincial authorities some opportunities to siphon off revenues that Kinshasa could try to claim for itself," says the U.S. security consultancy Stratfor.