KAMITUGA: Hundreds of people gather in Kamituga, South Kivu, at the entrance of one of the mines where dozens of Congolese artisanal miners are feared to be killed after heavy rain filled the mine tunnels. - AFP

BUKAVU: Emergency workers late Sunday recovered the first bodies of miners who perished in a disaster at a makeshift goldmine in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, witnesses told AFP. A total of 18 bodies have been recovered to nearby mining town Kamituga, according to a local resident at the scene, Jean Nondo. The governor of the South Kivu province has said that 50 miners had died, caught underground when heavy rains flooded their mine on Friday.

"When people wanted to get out, there was no way to because the water was pouring in at a great pressure," Nondo said. Kamituga mayor Alexandre Bundya said he did not know how many miners were working at the time of the flooding, but that 19 families were searching for missing loved ones. For a second day running, hundreds of people gathered at the site as emergency workers brought the first bodies out and into nearby tents, video footage viewed by AFP showed.

While the emergency workers were working with shovels and their bare hands on Saturday, by Sunday a hydraulic shovel had been brought to the site to help them with their work. The mine was on a concession held by Kamituga mining, a subsidiary of Canadian gold mining company Banro, Raoul Kitungano, of the Congolese campaign group Justice Pour Tous (Justice for All), told AFP. Banro announced in September 2019 it was suspending its operations there.

The mine was thus left to the artisanal miners, who earn their living by selling the minerals they manage to dig up themselves to local traders, who sell it on to large foreign companies. Accidents in DR Congo's makeshift mines are common and often deadly. In June 2019, at least 39 men died when a copper mine in Kolwezi, in the southeastern Katanga region, partially collapsed.

Because many such mines are in remote areas however, the accidents are under-reported. DR Congo has huge reserves of gold, cobalt, copper and coltan. It is the world's largest producer of cobalt, crucial for making the batteries used in mobile phones and electric vehicles. DR Congo's mineral-rich but volatile east faces regular attacks from a plethora of militias and rebel groups which operate freely in the region. AFP