Sierra Leone rebels squabble over diamonds

A rift has opened in Sierra Leone’s rebel Revolutionary United Front over diamond profits and the pace of disarmament, but diplomats said on Wednesday the row was unlikely to derail the peace process, Reuters reported.

The West African country’s gems have been blamed for fueling one of the continent’s most brutal civil wars, which has lasted over 10 years, by allowing rebels to buy weapons.

As efforts to end the conflict gather steam, military sources say some rebel officials may be trying to delay the process to fill their pockets before handing over control of the diamond-rich areas to U.N. and government forces, Reuters reported.

“They need more time for illicit diamond mining before they hand over the last major diamond-rich area,” a military source told Reuters, referring to the eastern Tongo field-one of the few rebel bases where disarmament has yet to start.

The row has blown up since a visit to Tongo last week by RUF spokesman Gibril Massaquoi, Reuters reported. Some rebel officials accuse him of trying to persuade RUF fighters there not to disarm under a U.N.-backed plan. As a result, acting RUF leader Issa Sesay has banned Massaquoi from talking to fighters and confined him to Freetown.

Massaquoi denies the accusation and accuses other rebels for trying to delay disarmament so they can mine diamonds, Reuters reported.

The rebels and the government agreed in July to ban diamond mining, while a U.N.-backed certification scheme was introduced last year to stem exports of “blood diamonds.”

But police and government officials-and now Massaquoi himself-say the ban has failed, Reuters reported.

Diplomatic sources said Massaquoi had been grounded mainly because he was seen as trying to hinder the disarmament process, but added that diamonds “may be part of the problem,” Reuters reported.

It is unclear how big a following Massaquoi has among the rebels, who still see their real leader as Foday Sankoh-detained after fighting in mid-2000. Massaquoi has often appeared closer to Sankoh than others in the RUF leadership.

Diplomats say the rift is not enough to stop a peace process that has never looked so likely to succeed in ending a war marked by atrocities against civilians, Reuters reported.

A cease-fire signed in November has broadly halted the fighting, allowing the United Nations to deploy its biggest current peacekeeping force and to disarm more than 25,000 rebel and government militia fighters, including 3,400 children.

Disarmament in Tongo is due to start in mid-November, and the United Nations hopes it will be completed across the former British colony next month.

Omrie Golley, who chairs the RUF peace council, played down the row within the movement, Reuters reported and declined to comment on whether diamonds had anything to do with the row, dismissing the issue as a “waste of time.”