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By Aaron Ross
DAKAR (Reuters) - The British government said it has frozen 580 million pounds in assets held by several dozen militia leaders, army officers and private organisations with ties to Democratic Republic of Congo.
The freezes were mandated by the European Union as part of a sanctions regime imposed by the United Nations. They represent a hefty sum in Democratic Republic of Congo, which has an annual gross domestic product of about $30 billion and a budget of $5 billion.
The figure was published on the UK parliament website on Monday by Economic Secretary John Glen in response to an MP's question about sanctions imposed on Congo.
His answer gave the total sum of seized assets but no details of the assets themselves. Still, it provided a rare window into the scale of illicit financial activity in Congo that international powers have targeted as they try to ratchet up pressure on President Joseph Kabila to step down from power.
Leaders of Congo's dozens of militia groups, government officials and military officers have long enriched themselves by trafficking minerals, imposing illegal taxes and stealing public funds, according to the government and various experts.
The asset freezes apply to individuals and groups, including warlords convicted by the International Criminal Court, a Congolese general who was convicted of rape, a gold trading company in neighbouring Uganda and two now-defunct Congolese airline companies.
Glen said the data covered the period from the sanctions' adoption in 2005 up until Sept. 30, 2016. That was before the EU imposed sanctions in late 2016 and in 2017 on 15 state officials and a militia leader.
Those sanctions were imposed over alleged human rights abuses and delays replacing President Kabila, whose official mandate ran out in December 2016 but has failed to organise new elections to replace him.
Glen said the measures apply to holdings in the United Kingdom and British Overseas Territories. Figures for 2017 freezes are still being compiled, he said. The funds remain the property of the individuals.
The United Nations first imposed a sanctions regime and arms embargo in Congo in 2003 following a five-year regional war in the east of the country that killed millions, most from hunger and disease.
Congo is Africa's leading producer of copper and the world's top miner of cobalt, which is used in rechargeable batteries, but ranks 176th out of 188 countries on the U.N. Human Development Index.
(Reporting By Aaron Ross, editing by Edward McAllister, Larry King)