Congo authorities quit rebel-held eastern border
By Joe Bavier
KINSHASA, Sept 3 (Reuters) - Congolese authorities have abandoned a key border crossing with Uganda in the hope of choking a source of cash for rebels, government officials said.
The border post in Bunagana, in North Kivu province, has been under the control of renegade General Laurent Nkunda's four-year-old Tutsi rebellion since a deal to integrate his fighters into the national army collapsed last year.
"It's a border post, a customs post, that has continued to generate the necessary means and resources that have permitted Laurent Nkunda to continue this unjust war," Serephin Ngwej, government special envoy for the Great Lakes region, said.
Ngwej told Reuters the move also targeted the flow of illegal arms shipments across the border.
But analysts said that by leaving the border unmanned, Congolese authorities may be allowing the border crossing to fall into the unchallenged control of Nkunda's National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) forces.
North and South Kivu provinces are home to around 80 percent of Congo's cassiterite, a tin ore, much of which is exported through Bunagana by traders who aim to avoid the cost of sending shipments via Rwanda.
A report this year by experts monitoring a U.N.-imposed arms embargo found Nkunda and other illegal armed groups used North Kivu's minerals trade to finance arms purchases.
"Whether it is realistic to assume that the government's announcement will stop, or significantly reduce, the trade via Bunagana remains to be seen," Nicholas Garrett, a mining expert at London-based Resource Consulting Services Limited, said.
He said it could leave traders susceptible to allegations of supporting the rebels by having to pay levies to them.
"This could be a stronger disincentive to avoid Bunagana under CNDP control, than the idea of 'closing the border'."
Congo signed a ceasefire deal in January with Nkunda's CNDP, whose rebellion is at the heart of a conflict that has lingered on well after the official end to Congo's broader 1998-2003 war.
Implementation of the agreement is largely paralysed and heavy fighting last week dealt a blow to the peace process.
The CNDP denies it receives any money from cross-border trade in Bunagana. It called the government's decision to remove around 40 customs agents, immigration officers and police from Bunagana this week a provocation.
"These revenues are verified (by the state)," CNDP spokesman Rene Abandi said. "They are pushing us towards rebellion."
Congo's 17,000-soldier U.N. peacekeeping mission said it supported the government's move.
Doubts over how effective the removal of the remnants of the state's presence in Bunagana will be in cutting off revenues to the CNDP, were heightened by Uganda's announcement that it has no intention of closing its side of the border.
"The situation is on the (Congolese) side. They've lost control of their side to Nkunda," Uganda's State Minister for International Affairs Henry Okello Oryem said on Tuesday.
"We think we should allow our people on the border to continue with their business unless there's an immediate threat to them or their goods."More than 800,000 North Kivu residents have been forced to flee their homes since large-scale clashes between Nkunda's rebels and government forces broke out in late 2006.
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