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Renewed violence in Congo may prove hard to stop

Criminal trade in coltan, diamonds, and gold fuels conflict and ethnic tensions.

Update: Thursday, 30 October, 2008; 13:00 CDT

Americans love their new cellphones and laptop computers, and I'm no different. But few of us can truly appreciate our piece of the puzzle in the bigger picture of what we see unfolding in eastern Congo, one of the world's most dysfunctional places.

While Americans have been worrying about their investments, the weak economy, and global economics, the city of Goma, DR Congo, has been sliding toward renewed violence for weeks. Goma is critical in this region of Africa because it has evolved into a staging ground for the United Nations' huge peace-keeping force and for much humanitarian work.

Here's the latest off the news wire:

The rebel general besieging Congo's eastern provincial capital Goma said Thursday he wants direct talks with the government about ending fighting in the region and his objections to a $5 billion deal that gives China access to the country's vast mineral riches in exchange for a railway and highway. Laurent Nkunda told The Associated Press in a telephone interview he also wants the urgent disarmament of a Rwandan Hutu militia that he accuses of preying on his minority Tutsi people.

Granted, Nkunda casts himself in a positive light here. That is but one part of a complex story. This new conflict in eastern Congo has a deeply economic element. Global demand for scarce minerals means certain raw materials that don't require huge mining operations lend themselves toward smuggling.

The concept of "blood diamonds" has captured the imagination of film-makers. It's much harder to address the same issue with coltan and cobalt. But it's true. Coltan is used in cell phones and laptops. Cobalt is extensively used in batteries. In some cases, the products of small-scale, illicit mining operations in eastern Congo and elsewhere end up in manufacturing plants in Asia and the West.

If you are doubtful about this new reality, consider the following development. China has cash in hand seeking trade agreements in an amazing number of African states, in search of oil, minerals, and other natural resources to supply its plants in the manufacture of consumer electronics and many other goods.

Here's what the BBC had to say recently:

"China is hungry for minerals and Africa has rich reserves of cobalt and copper," says Li Xiao Dong, who runs the factory. "Africa is full of opportunities - it's just like China when we started opening up a few years ago." Africa's minerals are vital for China. For the Communist Party the bags of minerals stacked up in the Huayou factory warehouse mean social stability. China has a billion people who want a better life. They want to buy TVs, cars and fridges. China simply does not have enough natural resources of its own to meet their needs. So, in order to keep its people happy and stable, it has to get its raw materials - oil, copper, zinc, cobalt - from abroad. And Africa has what China needs.

The bottom line is that the struggle in eastern Congo is far from over. If it reignites the simmering tensions between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority throughout this region of Africa, even Hotel Rwanda itself would not be 100 percent safe place.

There are Christian missions and churches throughout this region. Click here for the 2006 CT cover story on Congo.

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