The non-governmental organization, Human Rights Watch, says gold production is fueling massive human rights abuses in the northeastern Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Human Rights Watch says the proceeds from gold production in Congo's Ituri region are winding up in the pockets of regional warlords, who, the report says, are using the money to buy weapons. Fighting over control of the mines, the report says, has led to massacres, systematic torture, rape and arbitrary arrests.

The report says fighting between armed groups for control of the gold mining town of Mongbwalu cost the lives of at least 2,000 civilians between June 2002 and September 2004.

The New York-based rights group says that most of the gold being mined by small-scale miners in the region is making its way through Uganda to international gold dealers. Human Rights Watch senior researcher Anneke van Woudenberg told VOA it is up to these international dealers to make sure the gold they purchase does not originate in warlord-controlled territory.

"There is, of course, no magic bullet, no one single action that is going to make everything better in Congo," she said. "It requires companies that purchase gold to be absolutely sure that they are not supporting warlords. And it requires mining companies who re-engage [in mining activities] to also be sure that, as they do that, there is a voice for local people - not a voice for the warlords."

Ms. van Woudenberg says Human Rights Watch has already won the agreement of one European gold trading company to halt its gold imports from Congo, and urges other companies to do the same.

But the rights group has taken the South African multi-national AngloGold Ashanti company to task for its alleged dealings with a warlord in the region, saying it has both financed and provided logistical support to Floribert Njabu, the self-styled president of the FNI, or Nationalist and Integrationist Front, an armed group, which is not a party to the current transitional government.

"And, for us, this is the point that is most important, is that, in an environment like Congo, especially where the gold fields are based, the central government does not exist, and so any support of any kind to murderous armed groups, only contributes to further instability and undermines the peace process," said Ms. van Woudenberg. "And, really, at the end of the day, it's the Congolese people who suffer the most. They are the ones who constantly suffer from the horrors that these warlords perpetrate."

In a statement, Bobby Godsell, the chief executive of AngloGold Ashanti, says the company did make one payment under duress to the FNI, and that, over the course of several months, it was forced to pay cargo or landing fees to the group. Mr. Godsell said he has taken action to ensure that this does not happen again.

But Ms. van Woudenberg says the relationship goes deeper, and that representatives of AngloGold Ashanti are often in meetings with members of the FNI.

"It was this kind of support, meeting, after meeting, after meeting, after meeting, between the AngloGold Ashanti representatives and the warlord - the local warlord has said very clearly to Human Rights Watch, 'I am the boss of this gold mining town. If I wanted to chase this company away, I will," she said. "They need to have my permission to be there.' There can be no doubt that there is a relationship between this major multinational company and this murderous armed group."

Mr. Godsell says that he will urgently dispatch a high level team to the region to investigate the charges made by Human Rights Watch, and plans to work further with the rights group to ensure that his company's representatives do not provide further support to the FNI. AngloGold Ashanti is still engaged in exploration in the region, and has not yet set up any mining operations.