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(AP) M23 fighters in eastern Congo are bankrolling their rebellion by smuggling illicit gold that is entering jewelry stores and banks worldwide, according to a report published Thursday.


The Washington-based anti-genocide advocacy group Enough Project identifies three main gold exporters it believes are helping the M23 rebels and their allies to sell gold from eastern Congo, from which an estimated $500 million worth is traded annually.


The group says the individuals who are indirectly purchasing smuggled gold in Uganda and Burundi without exercising due diligence should be added to the list of those facing U.N. sanctions.


"That's not to say that somebody else couldn't try to take it over but gold smuggling is a highly illicit business where people find it very difficult to trust one another," said Sasha Lezhnev, senior policy analyst for the Enough Project. "So building up those trust relationships again would take quite a long time."


The report highlighting M23's financial resources comes after a recent upsurge in rebel violence during which the Congolese military was aided by a U.N. peacekeeping mission with a strengthened mandate to help fight rebels. M23 and the Congolese government have agreed to resume talks since those clashes erupted in late August, though negotiations have repeatedly stalled and made little progress.


Vianney Kazarama, a spokesman for the M23 rebels "categorically denied" the report's findings Thursday, calling them baseless.


"Our leader Sultani Makenga has never trafficked minerals from the time he was in the army until now," Kazarama told The Associated Press.


Eastern Congo's mineral riches have been exploited for years by a myriad of armed rebel groups and militias who have used violence to control the region's mines.


M23 formally launched its rebellion last year, drawing its name from a failed March 23, 2009 peace agreement with the Congolese government. Many of the M23 rebels, though, were previously members of earlier group known as the CNDP that also was involved in gold trafficking.


The Enough Project says M23 commander Sultani Makenga has taken over leadership of gold smuggling operations after former head Bosco Ntaganda surrendered to authorities on war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court. Much of the gold is being moved through a border crossing that is under the control of M23, Lezhnev said.


The M23 rebels are now building alliances with other armed fighters who control the region's mines, "traversing otherwise hostile ethnic and political divisions," the report said. Their partners include militia leader Sheka Ntabo Ntaberi, whose group is accused of raping hundreds of women in Luvungi in 2010.


The Enough Project report accuses three main gold exporters of aiding the rebels, each of whom have also been named in a U.N. Group of Experts report: Rajendra "Raju" Kumar, who is believed to trade through Mineral Impex Uganda; Mutoka Ruganyira of Ntahangwa Mining in Burundi; and Madadali Sultanali Pirani, who is believed to run Silver Minerals in Uganda.


It was not immediately possible to reach the exporters for comment. Ruganyira told the Enough Project he had sold his company and no longer traded gold, and investigators from the group were unable to reach the other two for comment despite repeated attempts by phone and email, Lezhnev said.


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Associated Press writer Saleh Mwanamilongo in Kinshasa, Congo contributed to this report.


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Follow Krista Larson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/klarsonafrica.


Associated Press
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