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Congo - Guns, Money and Cell Phones
Posted: Friday, June 15, 2001

(The Ind. Standard)

The demand for cell phones and computer chips is helping fuel a bloody civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo

The offer turned up a few weeks ago on an Internet bulletin board called the Embassy Network. Among the postings about Dutch work visas and Italian pen pals lurked a surprisingly blunt proposal: "How much do you want to offer per kilogram? Please find me at least 100,000 U.S. dollars and I will deliver immediately."
The substance for sale wasn't cocaine or top-grade opium. It was an ore called Columbite-tantalite - coltan for short - one of the world's most sought-after materials. Refine coltan and you get a highly heat-resistant metal powder called tantalum. It sells for $100 a pound, and it's becoming increasingly vital to modern life. For the high-tech industry, tantalum is magic dust, a key component in everything from mobile phones made by Nokia (NOK) and Ericsson and computer chips from Intel (INTC) to Sony (SNE) stereos and VCRs.

Selling coltan is not illegal. Most of the worldwide tantalum supply - valued at as much as $6 billion a year - comes from legitimate mining operations in Australia, Canada and Brazil. But as demand for tantalum took off with the boom of high-tech products in recent years, a new, more sinister market began flourishing in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There, warring rebel groups - many funded and supplied by neighboring Rwanda and Uganda - are exploiting coltan mining to help finance a bloody civil war now in its third year. "There is a direct link between human rights abuses and the exploitation of resources in areas in the DRC occupied by Rwanda and Uganda," says Suliman Baldo, a senior researcher in the Africa division at Human Rights Watch, a New York-based nongovernmental organization that tracks human-rights abuses worldwide. More

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