The government Thursday lifted a six-month ban on mining in conflict-plagued east Congo amid condemnation by critics who said the embargo had fueled looting of minerals by armed groups instead of stopping it.
Mines Minister Martin Kabwelulu declared "a new era in the mining sector" at a news conference Thursday, indicating the government is claiming the ban was effective.
President Joseph Kabila announced the ban on mining and trade in minerals in September, saying he wanted to stop the conflict fueled by the region's abundance of minerals from gold and coltan to copper and diamonds.
"Six months later, the situation is even worse and peace still has not been restored to eastern Congo," the African Association for the Defense of Human Rights said in a statement.
"Soldiers, police and rebel groups have seriously looted minerals," taking advantage of the ban, it said.
At the same time, tens of thousands of civilian artisanal miners were left without income.
"This measure has seriously impoverished the 70 percent of the population that survives solely on mining" in his Walikale district, national legislator Sabine Muhima told The Associated Press.
"We have also noted that soldiers and armed groups continued to work the mines during the ban" but not civilians, Muhima said.
The human rights association called for the government to re-institute the ban and make it effective by setting up a commission to identify and prosecute all military, police and civilian officials implicated in the illegal exploitation of minerals.
Asked about the charges by the human rights group, Kabwelulu said only that the ban had brought less violence. "The toll has been mitigated, what we require above all is the stabilization of our country on the security level."
Dozens of armed groups operate in eastern Congo and all are involved in mining _ from the national army to tribally based local militias to rebels from neighboring Burundi, Uganda and Rwandans who fled across the border after committing their country's 1994 genocide.
Soldiers are among people being investigated in the attempted smuggling of 475 tons of gold aboard a private U.S. jet seized by military intelligence agents along with $6.8 million in a Feb. 5 bust at the airport of Goma, the eastern provincial capital.
A Houston diamond merchant, the brother of a Nigerian-American oil tycoon, a Frenchman and a Nigerian businessmen also have been detained in connection with that case, along with three American flight crew members.
Congo's Ministry of Mines estimates that some 80 percent of the country's mineral production is smuggled out of the country, on planes, by road and by barge.
Eastern Congo has suffered conflict since back-to-back wars drew eight African armies to the country, who also were involved in looting the country's mineral resources. Peace came to the rest of the country in 2002.
Associated Press writer Michelle Faul contributed to this report from Johannesburg.