UN says Congo armed groups forming criminal gangs

Armed groups in eastern Congo, including the army, have bypassed international reform programs and have instead formed criminal networks to exploit the nation's mineral wealth, with one group even trying to sell uranium, the United Nations said in a report Monday.

The report said the armed units have done so despite recent efforts to disarm illegal militias and reform the disorganized, ill-disciplined army. The report said the army has even formed a criminal gang within its ranks.

Investigators cited several examples of militants illegally exploiting minerals and natural resources, seizing land, recruiting child soldiers and poaching endangered wildlife.

The report said Rwandan-led Hutu rebels in Congo in 2008 attempted to sell six canisters of what they said was unenriched uranium — an amount that the report said would not be enough to create even a small amount of fissile material — but could not find a buyer for more than a year and gave up.

At U.N. headquarters in New York on Monday, the Security Council renewed its arms embargo for people and groups not associated with the government, along with a travel ban and a freeze on the assets of people linked to illegal armed groups.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice welcomed the extension of the sanctions, which she said "can play an important role in bringing stability to the (Congo) and holding accountable those who direct the massacre of civilians, recruit child soldiers, or use rape as a weapon of war."

Rice also welcomed the council's support for possible new guidelines for people and companies that import, process, or consume Congolese mineral products.

"If implemented, these guidelines could significantly limit the illicit minerals trade, which has for many years fueled violence" in Congo, she said.

Eastern Congo has been wracked by violence since Rwanda's 1994 genocide spilled war across the border. Hutu militias that participated in the massacres of more than 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus sought refuge in Congo.

The U.N. has documented numerous human rights violations and atrocities at the hands of armed groups in eastern Congo.

In October, the U.N. said more than 300 civilians were raped by militants in 13 villages between July 30 and Aug. 2. The numbers were shocking even for eastern Congo, where rape has become a daily hazard and some women have been sexually assaulted repeatedly over the years.

Efforts have been made to professionalize the army and to bring militia groups into the organization. But those efforts are struggling. In October, the top U.N. envoy said Congolese government troops were raping, killing and looting civilians in the same area of eastern Congo where militias carried out the mass rapes.

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Associated Press writer Anita Snow contributed to this report from the United Nations.