* Workers protest that wages not paid
* Company sees limited impact on operations from strike (Updates with quote, detail, background)
By Peter Jones
KINSHASA, June 17 (Reuters) - Employees at Democratic Republic of Congo’s state mining firm Gecamines have gone on strike in Kolwezi in the southeastern Katanga province, protesting that the cash-strapped company has not paid their wages.
Since almost going bankrupt in the 1990s, Gecamines has struggled to secure financing for its projects including for those in Kolwezi, one of three main Gecamines mining hubs in the copper-rich Katanga province.
Congo possesses enormous mineral wealth and has deposits of diamonds, gold, copper, tin and coltan but decades of mismanagement, corruption and violence mean that the vast majority of its 65 million people live in poverty.
“The workers haven’t been paid in three months. They had threatened to call a strike. Now they have run out of patience,” said Jean-Claude Baka, Katanga president of ASADHO, a Congolese civil society group that works in the mining sector.
This week’s strike would have only a limited impact on mining operations, said a Gecamines spokesman.
“The workers have made their claims, which is normal. The trade union and the Gecamines directors are now trying to find a compromise and a durable solution,” Gecamines spokesman Franck Nkori Bokango told Reuters by telephone.
Gecamines workers also disrupted operations for a few hours near assets owned by Kamoto Copper Company (KCC), said a source close to the situation.
KCC is a joint venture controlled by Swiss mining and trading company Glencore PLC, in which Gecamines has a 20 percent stake. A spokesman for Glencore said KCC operations have not been disrupted.
In October the Congolese mining ministry warned Gecamines against selling its stake in KCC to controversial Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler, who has been the target of transparency campaigners in the past for a series of large-scale deals.
Gecamines is involved in a number of joint ventures with foreign mining firms and wants to ramp up its own production to around 100,000 tonnes of copper a year by 2016. In its 1980s heyday Gecamines produced nearly 500,000 tonnes of copper, but it reported only 35,000 tonnes in 2012.
Glencore plans to expand production at KCC to 300,000 tonnes per year in 2014-15. The mine helped Congo produce a record 942,000 tonnes of copper in 2013, making it the largest copper producer in Africa and fuelling economic growth of 8.5 percent.
A Gecamines worker in the provincial capital Lubumbashi said he was angry at the lack of wages and that unrest could spread beyond Kolwezi if the dispute was not resolved quickly.
“It is a vicious cycle. We cannot pay for anything for our families, and our needs grow and still we are not paid,” he told Reuters by telephone on condition of anonymity.
A union of Kolwezi-based Gecamines workers has sent a delegation to negotiate with management. The head of the delegation, Jackie Makong, told Reuters the strike would continue until a solution is found. (Additional reporting by Silvia Antonioli in London; Writing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg; Editing by Keiron Henderson)