A piece of malachite, a copper ore, is seen at the bottom of Congolese state mining company Gecamines' Kamfundwa open pit copper mine in this file picture.

Kinshasa - Democratic Republic of Congo state mining firm Gecamines has started paying workers unpaid wages and striking miners in the copper-rich Katanga province have begun returning to work, chief executive Ahmed Kalej Nkand said.

Workers in Kolwezi, one of three Gecamines production hubs in Congo's southeast, went on strike last week, saying they had not been paid in three months, undermining the firm's aspirations to become a major independent copper producer again.

“We have started to pay back the workers and they are returning to their posts,” Kalej Nkand told Reuters by telephone, without saying how many months' salary had been paid.

Union officials were not immediately available for comment.

Kalej Nkand said Gecamines had launched a programme to make up for production lost during the strike.

At its peak in the 1980s, Gecamines produced nearly 500,000 tonnes of copper a year but that figure was down to 35,000 tonnes by 2012, a result of years of war, corruption and mismanagement.

Gecamines holds stakes in joint ventures with major mining companies in Katanga but it hopes to reverse decades of under-investment to become a major producer again.

However, analysts say Gecamines is likely to struggle to raise the cash needed and part of the firm's overhaul involves a plan to cut back the number of employees, currently at around 12,000.

“Now we need to let go another 6,000,” Kalej Nkand said, adding that the plan would cost some $160 million. - Reuters