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World - Africa

Lust for diamonds kills thousands in African wars

Victims of "conflict diamonds"  

January 12, 2000
Web posted at: 11:43 p.m. EST (0443 GMT)

In this story:

Maintaining a fragile peace

Barbaric acts stem from diamond mines

The Belgian connection

Industry shares blame

Diamond-origin disclosure sought


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (CNN) -- The quest for diamonds in some African countries has fueled years of bitter fighting between government and rebel forces and brought about tens of thousands of civilian deaths.

According to a report published on Wednesday by the Canadian nongovernmental organization Partnership Africa Canada (PAC), the seven-year war in Sierra Leone was fueled by warlords, gangsters, government officials and international mining firms willing to go to almost any length to obtain valuable stones.

PAC is especially critical of the major diamond market in Antwerp, Belgium, saying Belgian officials ignored signs that many of the diamonds purchased from Liberia and other countries had clearly been smuggled out of Sierra Leone.

"There will never be a lasting peace in Sierra Leone until the diamond industry as a whole is properly managed, said Ian Smillie, co-author of the report.

U.S. Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, said that during the war in that country "rebels had a group of maybe 500 soldiers, but because they seized the diamond mines, they quickly increased their 500-man army to 20,000, with some of the best weapons on the market".

In Angola, where war has raged for 25 years, the rebel forces known as UNITA are thought to have earned nearly $4 billion from so-called "conflict diamonds" since 1992.

Maintaining a fragile peace

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said on Wednesday that the peace now established in Sierra Leone, where 75,000 civilians were killed and more than one million were displaced, remained "very fragile" and urged the rapid expansion of the U.N. force there from 6,000 to 11,100.

  A Global Witness report

"Tension and mistrust among the parties to the conflict continue," said Annan. "In addition, unruly members of some armed groups continue to attack, rob and rape civilians in parts of the country, while humanitarian workers are denied access to large parts of the population."

Robert Fowler, Canada's ambassador to the U.N. who is on a week-long visit to Angola, met the commander of the country's armed forces on Wednesday to try to trace the origin of rebel weapons. He is also reported to have met captured UNITA rebels.

"We have to identify the origin of the equipment (weapons) and figure out how it arrived in this country," he said.

Fowler arrived in Angola last Saturday to inspect efforts to stop rebels trading diamonds for arms and identify the sanctions-busting countries.

He is to report his findings to a special U.N. session on Angola on January 18 and present a formal report to the Security Council in March.

Barbaric acts reported at diamond mines

"The most barbaric, evil acts have been carried out over diamond fields ... mutilations, mass mutilations. Thousands of people have had their arms chopped off," said Alex Yearsley of Global Witness, a London-based advocacy group that studied Angola's legal and illegal trading in the 1990s.

The Canadian report on Sierra Leone's diamond trading urges the country's government "to ensure transparency, high standards and rigorous integrity in its diamond purchasing, valuation and oversight activities".

A professional diamond unit should be created to anticipate and counteract criminal activity, the report recommended.

The Belgian connection

The report criticizes Belgium's Hoge Raad voor Diamant (Diamond High Council), based in Antwerp, an industry umbrella group whose role is to strengthen Antwerp's position as a world diamond center and monitor imports an exports for the Belgian government.

"In recent years, there have been a number ofjudicial inquiries which have shown that the overall (Belgian) system violates almost any system of neutrality, and is an invitation to corruption," the report says.

For example, Liberia's average annual mining capacity is 100,000 to 150,00 carats -- yet the HRD recorded more than 31 million carats imported into Belgium from that country between 1994 and 1998.

The report said that since the diamonds could not all have been mined in Liberia, it was obvious thatmost had been smuggled from Sierra Leone and other countries.

Similarly, the Ivory Coast apparently exported more than 1.5 million carats to Belgium each year between 1995 and 1997, although its diamond mining industry was closed in the mid-1980s.

In Sierra Leone in 1998, the government exported a mere 8,500 carats, but the HRD registered imports of 770,000 carats for that year coming from that country.

Smillie said PAC wanted a high-level inquiry into the diamond industry in Belgium. "The authorities are afraid that tightening up the industry will drive it out of Belgium to Israel, Lebanon or somewhere else," he said.

"In our view that's not a good enough reason to do nothing," said Smillie.

Industry shares blame

The report says the diamond industry should accept its share of the blame as well, particularly South Africa-based De Beers, the largest diamond dealer in the world.

"If De Beers were to take a greater interest in countries like Sierra Leone and if it were to stop purchasing large amounts of diamonds from countries with a negligible production base, much could be done to end the current high levels of theft and smuggling," the report says.

De Beers says it stopped trading in Sierra Leone many years ago and recently ceased doing business in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Tim Capon, a director of De Beers, said the company was not a policeman and that "we are fairly confident that we are not handling any diamonds that can be described as conflict diamonds".

The company pointed out that conflict diamonds account for only 7 percent of world diamond trading and cautioned against action that could harm legitimate trading.

Diamond-origin disclosure sought

In the United States, where consumers buy 65 percent of all the world's gem quality diamonds, legislation has been introduced calling for disclosure of where diamonds are mined.

"I think if consumers knew the diamonds they were looking at were conflict diamonds, there would be a significant decrease in the buying of these kinds of diamonds," said Rep.Hall.

Correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Reuters contributed to this report.

Angola's business of war
October 1, 1999
Fighting continues in Angola, as government hopes to attract tourists
June 28, 1999
Eleven civilians condemned to die for 1997 coup in Sierra Leone
October 22, 1998

Government of South Africa
CIA World Factbook 1999: South Africa
De Beers
Hoge Raad voor Diamant, HRD / Diamond High Council
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