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Monday, 15 May, 2000, 16:25 GMT 17:25 UK
Diamonds: A rebel's best friend
The civil war in Sierra Leone has been financed by diamonds, and has always largely been a conflict about who controls the fabulous prize of the country's diamond mines.

The latest wave of instability has come about as United Nations peacekeepers have tried to wrest control of the mines from rebels who have held on to them in contravention of a regional peace deal brokered a year ago.

Sierra Leone: Widespread proverty unaffected by diamonds
It is easy to say the gems have been a curse on the country, especially as hardly any of the proceeds of mining have reached ordinary people, who remain among the poorest anywhere in the world.

Millions of dollars worth of high-quality diamonds are mined in Sierra Leone's eastern and northern badlands every month, much of the haul being smuggled out of the country.

Deposits are to be found close to ground level so men with guns employ labourers simply to dig holes and see what turns up.

Broken commitment

The diamond fields are in territory controlled by the feared rebel army of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) led by Foday Sankoh.

Rebels have not relinquished control of mines
The RUF youths have done nothing to relinquish their control of the mines to UN forces as required under the 1999 peace accord signed in the Togolese capital Lome.

Part of the deal was that Mr Sankoh became chairman of the Strategic Resources commission, giving him responsibility for the management of the diamond trade.

Anyone wishing to mine diamonds had to go through his Commission to obtain a licence - with any evaders being treated with "the full consequences of the law", he said.

Smugglers' spoils

Over the last two years, the value of official annual diamond exports by Sierra Leone has halved to $30m.

Displaced by the struggle for gems
In the same period, diamond exports by neighbouring Liberia - a country which possesses relatively few diamond fields - has risen dramatically to $300m.

These fluctuations give the lie to denials by the Liberian Government of Charles Taylor, a former rebel leader with historical links with Mr Sankoh's RUF, that it has any interest or involvement in prolonging the war in Sierra Leone.

Indeed, the recently-visiting Canadian Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy, observed that this year's instability in Sierra Leone had been sparked in part by UN forces trying to wrestle control of the diamond-producing areas from the rebels.

Sierra Leone in crisis

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09 May 00 | Africa
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