GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Government soldiers are enriching themselves through Congo's gold and other minerals, just as rebel groups are, a dereliction of their civilian protection duty which facilitated the mass rape of more than 300 women, according to documents and sources.
Congo's conflict-wracked east has become the scene of a race for control of resources as the army ratchets up military operations even as a ruling by President Joseph Kabila forbids mining in three eastern provinces in an effort to end "mafia" groups destabilising the country.
United Nations and local sources, however, have said the ban has permitted the national FARDC army to boost its own illicit mining operations in Walikale, home to the Omate gold mine and the huge Bisie tin mining area.
A report from the United Nations into circumstances that allowed the mass rape of more than 300 to take place in the densely jungled and mineral-rich Walikale district at the end of July also found soldiers had recently vacated their posts in favour of mining nearby resources.
The confidential UN report obtained by Reuters found that national FARDC soldiers, who were tasked with civilian protection, instead vacated their positions to participate in "lucrative military operations in Omate and Bisie mining area" in Walikale in July. The absence of soldiers left civilians more vulnerable to the attacks, which were carried out by several rebel groups, it said.
"For the military involvement, it is clear we have already said so and some solutions are being found," Mines Minister Martin Kabwelulu told Reuters, responding to questions that the military is mining sites including Omate in contravention of the ban, late on Thursday.
Despite official exports of only 220 kg of gold in 2009, Congo's Senate estimates nearly all gold mined in Congo is smuggled from the country, shipments worth $1.2 billion in 2009.
"Any of the artisanal gold mining coming out of Congo might be 'blood gold'," Gregory Mthembu-Salter, a consultant to the UN panel of experts, a group tasked with investigating embargo violations, told Reuters last month, making reference to the notion of 'blood' diamonds and minerals that have funded conflict in the past.
"It is the rebels' main mineral source of finance but FARDC is making a whole lot of money from gold as well," he said.
Several international traceability schemes hope to label minerals 'clean' from source to export, but the UN panel of experts said in May that almost every mining deposit in the east is controlled by an armed group, and demilitarising Congo's mine sites is crucial to cleaning up its trade.
Internal military correspondence suggests FARDC has long known that government troops have been engaged in illegal activity at mining sites.
"I urge you to evacuate this administration, and all soldiers who engage in mining activities," General Gabriel Amisi, commander of land forces, said of a mining firm and troops working the Omate gold mine, in a letter to a in a letter to a commanding regional officer, dated Feb. 9 and seen by Reuters.
Tensions among Congo's poorly integrated national FARDC troops are growing, according to UN sources, as they juggle an uneasy alliance with former Tutsi-led rebel group, the CNDP, which is itself rife with splits intensified by the chase for control over resources.
A soldier shot dead a commanding officer at the Omate gold mine this week, a police official told Reuters on Thursday, in the latest sign of tensions within the central African state's armed forces.
"Curiously, at Omate (gold mine) yesterday, a military element shot and killed a senior," Inspector Eric Mpereza Byamungu, police chief for Walikale district, told Reuters by telephone late on Thursday.
He said more than a hundred soldiers were stationed there to secure the mine and protect the population from the myriad rebel groups in the area, something disputed by UN and local sources.
"The firefight was between CNDP and non-CNDP," said a UN official who asked not to be named.
"Walikale is the prize," said the UN official. "The military have started to occupy the mines and they have started getting a taste of money."
(Editing by Daniel Magnowski and Giles Elgood)