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Swiss businessman accused of funding rebels in Congo

The war in the Congo has claimed 2.5 million lives since 1998 Keystone

A Swiss man is being accused of funding rebel forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo through his lucrative mineral business.

Chris Huber is believed to be working closely with the Rwandan army through his business ventures in exporting a mineral called colombo tantalite, or coltan, widely used in electronic devices such as mobile phones.

A new report by over 30 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) states that natural resources, such as coltan, are being smuggled from Congo by other countries involved in the current war, such as Rwanda, which are using revenues to sustain their war efforts.

The report, presented in Brussels on behalf of the NGOs by the Antwerp-based International Peace Information Service (IPIS), calls on electronic manufacturers to ban the import of coltan from warring countries such as Congo, where the number of war victims since 1998 is estimated to be 2.5 million people.

Coltan is a metallic ore, which, when refined, changes into a heat-resistant powder that can hold a high electrical charge. This makes it a vital element in creating capacitors, the electronic elements inside miniature circuit boards used in mobile phones and laptops.

The recent technology boom has caused the price of coltan to rocket to as much as $400 per kilogram, with manufacturers such as Nokia and Sony struggling to meet demand.

Offshore companies

According to IPIS, Huber has played an important part in financing war efforts in Rwanda, which is supporting rebel forces in eastern Congo.

Huber’s offshore companies, including Finmining and Raremet, purchase coltan from Rwanda Metals, a business affiliated to the Rwandan armed forces, says the report.

IPIS calls on the federal cabinet and the Swiss parliament to carry out a detailed investigation into Huber’s business activities.

Rapid reaction

Ieron Cuvelier, the co-author of the IPIS report, said it was imperative that the Swiss authorities act quickly, as Huber, who has been active in the trading of coltan since 1997, is one of the Rwandan army’s most important partners.

Speaking to swissinfo, Cuvelier added that Huber should be arrested unless he was able to provide evidence that his business activities were compliant with international trade regulations.

Questions regarding the sale of coltan in eastern Congo, which is valued at $100 million, were previously raised during a session of parliamentary question time last October.

The Swiss economic minister, Pascal Couchepin, responded to the query by saying that Bern had been working closely with a panel of United Nations experts on the matter.

As a result a report published by the UN on the sale of the mineral, both Swissair and the Belgian carrier, Sabena, had suspended flights originating from eastern Africa that were being used for the export of coltan in June 2000.

The UN report stated that although most illegal activities were organised by local businesses and individuals, there were also international companies involved in the trade of minerals in the region and it called for sanctions against these businesses.

The almost limitless mineral resources in Congo were a curse on the war-torn nation, the report said, with unscrupulous profiteers making the most of political instability in the country.

Endangered gorillas

The production of coltan is not only a political problem, but also an environmental one, because the material is being extracted from Congo’s national parks.

There are over 10,000 mineral workers active in the Kahuzi-Biega national park, one of the most important retreats of the endangered Grey Gorillas. In recent years, their numbers have dwindled from 8,000 to 1,000.

Since the workers moved into the area, gorillas are being slaughtered for meat.

Swiss-Congo trade

Despite the political instability in Congo, Hugo Salvisberg, a member of the Swiss Chamber of Commerce for African Countries, said Switzerland was keen to develop business ties with the country.

Salvisberg told swissinfo that great efforts were being made to build up contacts with the new Congolese leader, Joseph Kabila.

It was important to build up a presence in the region, said Salvisberg, and there were many small to medium-sized businesses interested in becoming involved in the region. He added that a Swiss congress in nearby Cameroon would take place in the near future, with the aim of introducing Swiss businesses to the region.

by Jean-Michel Berthoud

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