Insight: "Triangle of death" looms over Congo's mining heartlands

Tue Feb 19, 2013 2:17am EST
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By Jonny Hogg and Clara Ferreira-Marques

LIKASI, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Trucks of workers and building materials hurtle through the mining town of Likasi at the heart of Congo's copper producing south, evidence of the billions being poured into the region after years of war and underinvestment.

But rebel fighters feeding off local grievances and secessionist sentiment are threatening to resurrect the specter of a southern breakaway, in a fresh challenge to the stability and integrity of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The rebels, estimated to number anything from a few hundred to a few thousand, armed with bows, arrows and assault rifles, could re-open decades-old political fissures in Katanga, Congo's economic engine but also its most independent-minded province.

Their forays south, away from their stronghold in the province's north and towards Katanga's mining heart, raise the stakes in a region that is also a power base for a government already stretched by a separate insurgency in the east.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) is one of a handful of aid organizations in Katanga operating in the vast and virtually road less northern area known to locals as the "Triangle of Death" in reference to atrocities including massacres, rape and cannibalism carried out by the rebels, known as the Mai Mai.

"The Mai Mai are coming out of their normal zone within the triangle. Since December we've seen an intensification of clashes with the army," said Pascal Duchemin, head of MSF-Holland in Katanga's capital Lubumbashi.

While international attention has focused on a rebellion along Congo's restive eastern border with Rwanda and Uganda, the violence in Katanga has simmered largely unnoticed.

MSF has been forced to reduce its presence because of security concerns in the north, where it reports empty, burnt villages for kilometers at a stretch. Footage shot by a local journalist shows Congolese troops marching through hamlets gutted by fire and families housed in makeshift bush shelters.   Continued...

Children are seen with a bicycle on the road outside the village of Tenke, in Congo's copper-producing south, near a smaller hamlet built by the Tenke Fungurume mining operation to rehouse local families displaced by the mine's expansion, January 30, 2013. Katanga, a province roughly the size of Spain, was the heart of central Africa's colonial mining industry, its growth fuelled by Belgium's Union Miniere du Haut Katanga, which produced tonne upon tonne of copper and also the uranium for the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. Decades of corruption and a brutal civil war brought Katanga to its knees. A period of relative stability since the 2003 peace deal and elections that followed - combined with high metal prices - brought private miners, and officials say Congo's copper exports jumped to 600,000 tonnes in 2012, from under 20,000 a decade ago. Picture taken January 30, 2013. REUTERS/Jonny Hogg