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

Bukavu: About 50 people are feared dead after an artisanal gold mine flooded in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo after torrential rain, a provincial governor said Saturday.

The accident in the makeshift mine occurred on Friday in the town of Kamituga, in South Kivu province, about 270 kilometres (170 miles) southwest of the regional capital Bukavu.

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.

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South Kivu governor Theo Ngwabidje Kasi deplored "the tragic deaths of 50 people, most of them young".

However, Kamituga mayor Alexandre Bundya said "we are not yet sure of the exact number" of victims.

No bodies had been recovered so far, he said, adding that "19 families have come to look for their relatives".

A local resident at the scene, Jean Nondo Mukambilwa, told AFP only one body had been found so far.

Torrential rain had flooded a river close to the mine, and dismissed an earlier report that the mine had caved in, he said.

"It was not a collapse. It was because of the rains that the accident happened," he explained.

"Water went into the three tunnels. When people tried to get out, there was no way as the water was flowing strongly, with high pressure."

Hundreds of people gathered at the entrance to one of the tunnels, a video sent to AFP by the witness showed.

Men using shovels were trying to clear the entrance to the narrow passageway, as Red Cross workers stood waiting.

The mayor decreed two days of mourning and called on locals to help extract the bodies from the ground.

"Investigations must be carried out to find out the causes of this disaster," said a representative of civil society, Nicolas Kyalangalilwa.

"The authorities must take responsibility instead of taxing" these miners.

Accidents in DR Congo's makeshift mines are common and often deadly.

Illegal mining rampant

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.

The illegal miners sell what they find to local traders, who sell it on to large foreign companies and are usually paid a pittance.

Mining hardly benefits DR Congo's more than 80 million people. The World Bank said in 2018 that 72 percent of the population lived on less than 1.9 dollars a day.

Most Congolese earn their living in informal economic sectors such as makeshift mining.

According to a report by London-based specialist firm Darton, up to 16 percent of the cobalt extracted in the mineral-rich Katanga province came from illegal miners.