JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Illegal mining and trading are fuelling worsening violence on mine sites, the governor of Democratic Republic of Congo's gold-rich Ituri province said, after armed robbers killed four people, including three Chinese nationals, at a gold mine.
The attack occurred around 0100 on the morning of April 5 at a gold site mined by the COMIDI cooperative in Irumu, 62km (39 miles) from the provincial capital Bunia, the governor said.
It was first reported by China's official Xinhua news agency on Monday.
"We can only condemn in the strongest terms these awful acts which add to the list of thousands of victims of armed bandits in our province," Governor Jean Bamanisa Saidi said, in a letter seen by Reuters dated April 8.
President Felix Tshisekedi is trying to restore stability to Congo's eastern borderlands, a tinderbox of conflict among armed groups over ethnicity, natural resources and political power.
Gold is mined by artisanal mining cooperatives, typically using rudimentary tools and techniques, in Ituri, which borders Uganda and South Sudan.
Governor Bamanisa Saidi said most cooperatives and mining companies in the province do not report production figures, and minerals are illegally marketed, causing "massive fraud" of huge quantities of minerals.
Measures to curb the coronavirus worldwide have disrupted the supply chains artisanal gold miners depend on and dried up funding, causing local gold prices to slump to discounts of as much as 40% to the world price.
In one area of Ituri, 79 out of 85 gold trading houses have shut down because they have no one to sell to, research by Canadian natural resources NGO IMPACT found.
This presents an opportunity for illicit gold buyers capable of buying low and selling high, and is likely to fuel insecurity in DRC, IMPACT said.
"Various armed groups and political elites will begin competing for preferential access to these outside buyers but also for control of new territory (and mine sites)," IMPACT executive director Joanne Lebert and consultant Alan Martin wrote in a report on Friday.
(Reporting by Helen Reid, Additional Reporting by Hereward Holland, Editing by William Maclean)