KINSHASA- Congolese authorities have seized 31 kg of gold, worth around $1.9 million, in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the country's northeast, in a rare loss for smugglers who fraudulently bring tonnes of Congolese gold into the global market each year.
Lieutenant Jean de Dieu Musongela, head of the military prosecutor's office in Mambasa, said on Tuesday the 31 ingots, which would have entered the open market after being smuggled through a neighbouring country, came from Muchacha, which he described as a mine in the Okapi reserve.
Mining in the reserve - a UNESCO World Heritage site, home to okapi, forest elephants, and other endangered species - is illegal, but the Congolese mining registry shows Okapi covering a smaller area than on UNESCO's maps.
Three Congolese men were arrested, he added, but another two men, who were Chinese, managed to flee, Musongela said.
Tonnes of gold are smuggled out of Democratic Republic of Congo's Ituri province yearly through Uganda and other neighbouring countries, U.N. experts have found, depriving the state of revenues from its natural resources.
"Not only are these people mining gold, they are also melting it," said Musongela, adding the authorities did not know the extent of the operation.
In a report last week, the United Nations Group of Experts on the Congo found Muchacha was situated on mining concession PE7657, owned by MCC Resources. MCC Resources did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Ituri only has three registered gold "comptoirs", or trading houses, and together they exported 14.213 kg of gold in 2020, the report found.
(Reporting by Hereward Holland and Helen Reid, Additional reporting by Elias Biryabarema and Erikas Mwisi Kambale; Editing by Alison Williams) ((Helen.Reid@thomsonreuters.com; +27 66 156 5214;))