'Worthless mud' fuels Congo's gem wars

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An obscure mineral which looks like worthless black mud is emerging as one of the most essential ingredients in modern living, and in African warfare.

An obscure mineral which looks like worthless black mud is emerging as one of the most essential ingredients in modern living, and in African warfare.

After diamonds, gold and oil, "col-tan'', short for columbite-tantalite, a rare ore containing tantalum, has joined the rogues' gallery of African subsoil resources fuelling wars on the ground. Col-ton is a crucial element in the manufacture of mobile phones, Playstations, or any item that needs a capacitor to maintain the electric charge of a computer microchip.

It is extracted by peasants scrabbling with shovels and plastic bags on hillsides in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. But its price has rocketed with rising industrial demand for tantalum. Difficulties in sourcing the ore led to a world shortage of PlayStation2 platforms last year.

Col-tan got its name 200 years ago because the search for it is tantalising. This rare ore, rather than diamonds or gold, has kept the Rwandan war machine ticking in the 30 months of the bloody turbulence in the DRC.

Since the Rwandan-led Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) launched its challenge against the late Laurent-Désiré Kabila in August 1998, tantalum's value has doubled, again and again and again.

For years its price was $30 a pound. In december that soared to $210 but settled around $155. Along with Western Australia, the eastern part of the DRC has some of the richest col-tan deposits in the world, so the rebels have declared a monopoly on exports.

Tantalum is only the latest treasure to come out of the former Zaire, source of the uranium that was used in the Hiroshima bomb, and of "Incomparable'', a 400-carat diamond which in 1988 attracted the highest price bid for a single gem.

The fabled riches of the DRC explain why six foreign countries are engaged in war there. The Kabila camp's allies, Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia have been granted offshore oil concessions, as well as diamond mines, cobalt and rare timber. Zimbabwean top brass have reportedly exported African Grey parrots from the DRC.

The rebels' supporters - Rwanda and Uganda - also want to be paid, and they are, typically in diamonds, timber, coffee, gold and, now, tantalum. Uganda, which backs rebels in DRC's main gold region, Bunia, has no sizeable reserves of the metal of its own. But since the DRC war began, it has registered as a gold exporter.

Rwanda's support for the RCD may have cost it almost nothing, thanks to tantalum and the diamond-trading the group controls in Kisangani.

The rebel president, Adolphe Onusumba, justified the business, saying: "I mean - we are at war. We need to maintain the soldiers. We need to pay for services."

Another RCD official, Bizima Karaha, said: "At least around here, people look for col-tan more than for the gold and the diamonds. Everybody was saying, 'Col-tan this, columbite-tantalite that. Tantalum!' Before I saw it, I expected to see something extremely wonderful. It is just mud."