Sierra Leone police crack down on conflict diamonds

Sierra Leone police have unleashed a major operation to seize illegal “conflict diamonds” and stop rampant smuggling of the stones that have helped fuel a decade of war, they said Tuesday.

Police told journalists the operation began Monday and had already scored a major success with the seizure of 179 stones at the house of a woman in Freetown, Reuters reported. They did not estimate the value of the diamonds, Reuters reported.

Last month rebels and the government, backed by U.N. peacekeepers, agreed to ban diamond mining to help disarmament under a plan to end a brutal war in the west African country, Reuters reported. But police sources said the ban had failed to stop the flow of stones from the West African country’s gem-rich, rebel-held eastern Kono district.

“There is no police presence in the district and we have information that foreigners and nationals have been traveling there to deal with illicit miners,” a senior police source in Freetown told Reuters.

The use of diamonds by the rebels to fund their struggle for power has been a big factor in a world campaign against so-called blood diamonds fueling wars on the world’s poorest continent.

Relative peace has returned to Sierra Leone since a November cease-fire and U.N. troops have deployed to rebel-held areas to disarm thousands of fighters, but many people have taken the opportunity to look for stones.

“Those who feel they can go and mine diamonds illegally because the war is finally coming to an end … are doing so at their own risk,” a spokesman for Sierra Leone’s mines’ ministry said. “They will face the full penalty of the laws of Sierra Leone.”

The export of diamonds by the rebel Revolutionary United Front is banned. The United Nations has also embargoed the export of stones by long-time rebel ally Liberia.

Industry sources say most diamonds are either smuggled through other West African countries or sold through official channels with a certificate delivered by officials who either do not know or care where the diamonds originated.

Illegal mining and diamond smuggling were features of Sierra Leonean life long before the British left at independence in 1961.

The abuse of diamond revenues by past regimes was one of the reasons why the rebels said they launched their rebellion in 1991, to demand that the money pay for schools and hospitals instead of filling foreign bank accounts.