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Thursday, June 18, 1998 Published at 13:32 GMT 14:32 UK

World: Africa

Pigeon in the sky with diamonds

Pigeons have become the preferred mode of transport for South African diamond smugglers

Police in South Africa have shot dead a homing pigeon which was carrying more than 6,000 worth of uncut diamonds taped around its chest.

The pigeon was spotted sitting exhausted on the main street of Alexander Bay, a diamond mining centre in the desert on South Africa's west coast.

Residents of the town, who had seen the bird several times since Sunday, called the local police, who sent out a search party.

An officer shot the bird, and discovered six small bags containing more than 50 uncut diamonds taped around its chest.

'Red alert to shoot pigeons' - South African MP Manda Msomi
A BBC correspondent in Johannesburg says diamond smuggling using carrier pigeons is a huge problem for multi-national mining companies in South Africa.

Criminals working inside the mining compounds tape the diamonds to the pigeon's legs or body and then release them. When the bird flies back home to its roost the owner recovers the illegal cargo and sells it on the black market.

Last year dozens of people were arrested for using pigeons to smuggle diamonds out of mining compounds in the Alexander Bay area.

The mining companies have struggled to contain the problem.

Some have even threatened to cull all pigeons discovered within range of some of the bigger diamond mines - a move that has brought strong protests from pigeon fanciers in gem mining areas.

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