Gold and diamonds feed Central African Republic’s religious violence
Three young rebels, their AK47s propped against wooden stools in the afternoon heat, guard the entrance to the giant Ndassima goldmine carved deep into a forested hilltop in Central African Republic.
Sat in a thatched shack at the edge of a muddy shantytown, the gunmen keep the peace – for a price – among hundreds of illegal miners who swarm over the steep sides of the glittering open pit, scratching out a living.
The mine, owned by Canada’s Axmin (AXM.V), was overrun by the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels more than year ago. It now forms part of an illicit economy driving sectarian conflict in one of Africa’s most unstable countries, despite the presence of thousands of French and African peacekeepers.
Seleka fighters – many from neighboring Chad and Sudan – swept south to topple President Francois Bozize in March last year. Months of killing and looting provoked vicious reprisals by Christian militia, known as “anti-balaka”, that pushed the rebels back, splitting the landlocked country of 4.5 million people into a Muslim north and the Christian south.
“We control the mine. If there is a problem there, we intervene,” said Seleka’s local commander Colonel Oumar Garba, sipping tea outside a villa in Axmin’s abandoned compound. “People don’t want the French peacekeepers here because they know they’ll chase them away from the mine.”
Axmin suspended activity at the mine in late 2012 after rebels occupied its camp. The firm says it is monitoring the situation. CEO Lucy Yan did not respond to requests for comment.
Thousands of people have died and more than a million fled their homes in Central African Republic amid the violence between the Muslim Seleka rebels and Christian militia.
Scenes of cannibalism and the dismemberment of Muslims by Christian mobs in Bangui sowed fears of ethnic cleansing, prompting France to deploy 2,000 peacekeepers to its former colony. After tens of thousands of Muslims fled the south, the United Nations agreed to a 12,000-strong mission from September.
A ceasefire signed last week in the capital of neighboring Congo Republic raised hopes of an end to the conflict. But many fear local warlords on both sides will resist attempts to break their grip over resources, especially diamond and gold mines.