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British ally behind world's bloodiest conflict

By David Blair in Bunia, Daily Telegraph special envoy in Bunia, east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, 27-April-2006

One of Britain's closest allies in Africa is stoking the flames of anarchy in the Democratic Republic of Congo by arming brutal militias in return for gold and mineral wealth.

Uganda backs rebels responsible for ravaging the rugged hills and dense rainforest of Congo's Ituri district, according to United Nations officials and western diplomats. Gnmen, styling themselves the Revolutionary Movement of Congo (known by their French acronym MRC), have forced tens of thousands to flee in the last three months alone.

The flow of weapons from Uganda breaches a UN arms embargo imposed on eastern Congo in 2003 and expanded to cover the entire country last year. At the same time British aid to Uganda totals £70 million this year, of which £30 million goes directly into the coffers of President Yoweri Museveni's government.

The MRC has united a motley collection of tribal militias under its banner. Their common enemies are 17,000 UN peacekeeping troops struggling to bring order to Congo and President Joseph Kabila's transitional government.

Uganda shares a 480-mile frontier with Congo and, in private, UN officials have no doubt that its army is supplying the MRC. "I don't have photographs of arms crossing the border but yes, it is clear that is what is happening and elements of the Ugandan army are responsible," said a UN source in Bunia, Ituri's main town.

Uganda invaded its giant neighbour in 1998, helping to start Congo's war of aggression. This has escalated to become the bloodiest conflict seen anywhere in the world since 1945. Some 5 million people have been massacred, according to one survey, many others succumbing to war-induced starvation and disease.

Cursed by its mineral wealth, Congo has always been eyed by predatory foreign powers. The evidence suggests that Ugandan meddling is still costing lives inside its anarchic neighbour. Mr Museveni's stated goal for the invasion was to hunt down rebels responsible for raiding Ugandan territory. But a UN investigation in 2002 found that Ugandan forces had plundered Congo's immense mineral wealth. Gold, diamonds, ivory and timber were all looted in great quantities and the UN named Mr Museveni's younger brother, Gen Salim Saleh, as a beneficiary.

To help pillage Congo, Ugandan forces allied with brutal militias. An ethnic conflict between the Hema and Lendu tribes had long plagued Ituri and Uganda stirred up the fighting by arming the Hema. Mr Museveni's imposition of a Hema governor in Ituri in 1999 helped ignite a new tribal war, costing tens of thousands of lives. This was the beginning of Uganda's long relationship with Ituri's militias. The evidence suggests that it continues today. UN investigators believe that Ugandan frontier officials, particularly at the Vurra border crossing with Ituri, turn a blind eye to weapons shipments into Congo.

Entebbe airport, the largest in Uganda, allows illicit flights to bush airstrips in Congo. The MRC leaders are permitted to cross into Uganda at will.

A UN investigation in 2004 concluded that militias "benefit directly from unchecked imports from Uganda, which could readily contain arms, ammunition or other military supplies." Uganda's failure to stop this "could be construed as wilful neglect, which facilitates the execution of illicit operations or violations of the embargo". The UN documented two shipments of arms from Uganda to Ituri's militias in 2004. These embargo-breaching consignments included 150 cases of 7.62mm ammunition along with Kalashnikov assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, heavy-calibre rifles and mortars.

The possible consequence of arming Ituri's militias was demonstrated last February when the gunmen killed nine Bangladeshi peacekeeping troops. In return for supplying arms, Uganda plunders the area controlled by its favoured rebels. Gold and timber are the main loot in Ituri. Official figures from the Bank of Uganda show that the country has become a significant gold exporter - despite possessing scarcely any gold of its own. Thus in 2004, the bank reported domestic gold production of only 1.4 tons - but gold exports of 7.3 tons. The evidence suggests that this gold was illegally mined in Congo, probably in Ituri. Mr Museveni's government operates an arms factory in Nakasongola district, about 150 miles from the border with Congo. This manufactures ammunition and also reconditions a variety of weapons, ranging from rifles to heavy artillery. Uganda has refused to allow UN investigators to visit this factory. If they did, the serial numbers on its weapons could be noted and the origins of munitions found in Congo could be established for certain. Mr Museveni, who is the fourth largest recipient of British aid in Africa, is under intense international pressure to stop backing the MRC.

One western diplomat said that he was "treading on very thin ice". Two weeks ago, Uganda arrested 10 senior MRC figures in its capital, Kampala. Yet before this, the authorities had repeatedly denied that any MRC gunmen were inside Uganda.

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