Authorities in Sierra Leone have launched massive raids on illegal diamond offices operating in the east of the gem-rich west African country, media reports said.
Police and officials from the ministry of mineral resources padlocked offices and seized mining equipment and scales in Kedema, the nation’s third-largest city, U.N. radio said.
Several shop owners were taken in for questioning, then released on bail, it said.
The operation could be extended throughout the eastern region, where diamond trafficking is rife as the gems head across the land border to neighboring Guinea and Liberia, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports.
Sierra “conflict” diamonds were one of the main causes of a savage decade-long civil war, which only ended in 2001 and claimed more than 200,000 lives.
Diamond dealers in Kenema reached by AFP by telephone gave resounding support to the clampdown.
“We had expected this a long time ago, since illegal diamond offices had mushroomed in the town,” said retail trader Moima Jalloh, complaining that the illicit traders paid no taxes. “They are a drain to the country’s revenue intake.”
A senior member of the Diamond Dealers Association reportedly said the group backed the raid in the hopes of “getting rid of spoilers of the trade.”
“Those who try to operate outside the law must be brought to book to pay for their deceit.”
During the country’s 1991-2001 conflict, the rebel Revolutionary United Front smuggled the stones out of the country to help pay for their weapons, dragging out the conflict and pulling in warlords in neighboring states like Liberia.
A decade of atrocities and the illegal trade in conflict diamonds has helped make Sierra Leone one of the poorest countries in the world.
Since then, Western states like former colonial power Britain and the United States have stepped up aid to help Sierra Leone make the trade more law-abiding in a bid to see profits shared by more of its inhabitants.
Late last month, Sierra Leone announced plans to restrict the residency rights and movements of foreign nationals within designated diamond mining areas in a bid to stem the illegal outflow of the gems across the border.
The move would affect both African and non-African nationals, including those from other countries of the west African economic grouping ECOWAS, of which Sierra Leone is a member.
Local sources told AFP that Lebanese diamond dealers are most likely to be affected by the move, but that Guinean, Gambian, and Malian diamond smugglers may also be caught in the net.
Another member of Sierra Leone’s diamond association blamed foreigners for the illegal trade, saying they used locals as “fronts.”
“They operate even from their bedrooms,” he reportedly said.
A Lebanese diamond dealer in Kenema who asked not to be named told AFP he backed the crackdown.
“The action by these illegal diamond operators is giving the diamond industry an ugly face,” he told AFP. “Diamond mining should be a clean enterprise.”