August 15, 2009 / 12:13 PM / 9 years ago

DRC holds Freeport staff in alleged visa scam

* Congo detains three employees of Freeport project

* Held on suspicion of embezzlement

By Joe Bavier

KINSHASA, Aug 15 (Reuters) - Congolese authorities have detained three employees of a giant Freeport-MacMoRan mining project on suspicion of embezzling millions of dollars in a visa and work permit scam, Congo’s top prosecutor has told Reuters.

Two Congolese staff and Dirk Vanhooymissen, administrator at Tenke Fungurume Mining (TFM) in which U.S.-based Freeport (FCX.N) is majority stakeholder, are being held at the capital Kinshasa’s central prison.

“They are being prosecuted for misappropriation of public funds and forgery,” Democratic Republic of Congo’s prosecutor-general Octave Tela told Reuters late on Friday.

He said they were under suspicion of involvement in a scheme under which usual procedures were bypassed for paying visa and work permit fees for TFM employees, adding that the sums in question amounted to several million dollars.

Francois Saidi Hamici, director of immigration in Katanga province, had also been detained in connection with in the affair, Tela said.

The TFM mine project in Congo’s Katanga province is widely considered to be the largest and highest-grade undeveloped copper and cobalt project in the world.

TFM said in a statement that the company was aware that the three employees were being held for questioning in relation to their alleged involvement in the scheme.

“The government has not presented TFM with any evidence of wrongdoing by TFM’s employees. The company is cooperating with government inquiries and conducting its own internal investigation,” TMF spokeswoman Margaret Kabamba said.

She added that according to company policy, any lawyers employed on behalf of the accused would not be authorised to talk to the media. The employees themselves could not be reached for comment.

Freeport has a 57.75 percent stake in the Tenke mine. Toronto-listed Lundin Mining owns 24.75 percent with Congolese state copper miner Gecamines holding 17.5 percent.

The affair comes a week after Congo’s government completed a long-delayed review of 61 mining contracts, most of which were agreed during the chaos of a 1998-2003 war and the three-year transitional government that followed.

Officials said Tenke has yet to agree to the rewriting of the contract in accordance with new legislation, extra royalties on additional production, and the integration of the state company into management structures. The government gave the TFM an additional 60 days in which to complete the process. (Editing by Mark John)

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