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GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO — A few hours after rebel fighters swept into Goma last week, a mysterious convoy of six trucks rumbled up to the Rwandan border on the edge of the city. They were loaded with “conflict minerals” – including tin and tantalum – from warehouses in Goma.
The potholed streets of this sprawling, refugee-filled city, built on volcanic rock, were largely empty. Most people were huddled inside their shacks or high-walled compounds as the rebels seized the city. But at about 5:30 p.m., just before the frontier closed, the trucks reached the border and the guards allowed them to cross from Congo into Rwanda.
“A convoy of six trucks at the same time is unusual,” said Fidel Bafilemba, a conflict-minerals researcher in Goma who received a flood of calls from witnesses when the trucks crossed the border. “Rwanda knew the city had fallen to the rebels, yet they allowed those trucks to enter. They should have stopped them.”
The M23 rebels have been promising for several days to withdraw from Goma, although the pullout was delayed on Friday when United Nations peacekeepers refused to allow the rebels to take a cache of army munitions and equipment from Goma’s airport.
But even if the rebels withdraw, they will leave behind their proxies: a layer of administrators, informers, police and other operatives who will bolster M23’s economic power in the city – including their grip on the trade in “blood minerals” that provide revenue to Congo’s array of armed groups and can be found in many cellphones and computers around the world.
While the causes of the M23 rebellion are complex, economic factors are among the biggest. By capturing Goma and a large swath of eastern Congo, the Rwandan-backed rebels have assured their influence over the vast mineral wealth of the region – and a wide range of other business activities, from the charcoal and timber trades to gas stations and illicit border revenue.
Global efforts stymied
The rebel victories are a huge setback for the global effort to control the minerals. Activist groups and major electronics companies such as Motorola and Intel had worked for years to establish systems for tracking minerals and certifying them as “conflict-free” – allowing them to be sold legitimately in retail stores in North America and elsewhere.
But those efforts have been heavily damaged by the rebel advances in the past six months. “It has wrecked all the certification and tracing processes,” Mr. Bafilemba said.
The six trucks that crossed the border into Rwanda on Nov. 20 were evidence of two disturbing trends: the rapid growth of mineral smuggling routes from Congo to Rwanda and the strong commercial interests of the M23 rebels who organized or approved the truck convoy.
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