Three dead in violence at SMB's coltan mine in Congo

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Three people were reported killed on Tuesday during clashes at Société Minière de Bisunzu’s (SMB) coltan mine in eastern Congo, but the mine’s owners and the cooperative that operates it gave diverging accounts that disputed the police role in the violence.

SMB’s mine near Rubaya, North Kivu province, is operated by mineworkers from COOPERAMMA, a local collective. The mine has seen an increase in deadly violence between mineworkers and police hired by SMB to oversee the site and prevent smuggling.

COOPERAMMA has repeatedly accused the police of using excessive force, which the police and SMB deny.

SMB said on Wednesday that two policemen were targeted in a nighttime grenade attack, which was followed by gunfire. Three people died and three, including one policeman, were hurt and taken to hospital, it said.

“SMB emphatically denounces and condemns these attacks which it continues to be a victim of,” it said in a statement, adding that a similar attack on June 14 had targeted police at the mine.

Officials from COOPERAMMA disputed that account. They said three people were shot dead by security forces at a shop at around 19:00 (1700 GMT) on Tuesday evening.

The report of a grenade attack was “pure lies”, said Roger Rugwiza, a COOPERAMMA official responsible for ensuring the mine’s output is accurately traced. Two of those killed were COOPERAMMA members, the third a local butcher, he said.

Loic Bonduelle, deputy general manager at SMB, said none of those killed were from COOPERAMMA.

Earlier this month Congo experts commissioned by the United Nations published a report saying coltan, an ore rich in the rare metal tantalum used in manufacturing tech components, was being smuggled out of the mine by diggers and sold elsewhere.

Due to smuggling, SMB lost around 50 tonnes of coltan per month during 2019, the company told the UN experts.

Reporting by Helen Reid; Additional reporting by Hereward Holland and Aaron Ross; Editing by Gareth Jones and Edward McAllister