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Illegal Diamonds Trickle In and Out of Ivory Coast


The U.N. Security Council voted Thursday to ban exports of diamonds from Ivory Coast. The measure calls on neighboring countries to take the necessary measures to prevent the import of all rough diamonds from Ivory Coast to their territory. The so-called Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, launched in 2003, is supposed to stop diamonds from fueling conflicts, as they did recently in Sierra Leone and Liberia. But as VOAs Nico Colombant recently found out on a trip in neighboring Ivory Coast, diamonds are easily trickling in and out of the divided countrys rebel-held zone.

In this backstreet jewelry shop outside the Ivorian city of Danane, near Liberia, a pre-teen boy is making a necklace.

Other boys in the shop say their customers are mainly French peacekeepers.

The diamonds they use come from Liberia, where Guinean and Malian nationals take them by foot and motorbike across the porous, border region. Other diamonds continue on to Guinea and Mali.

Guinean traders say a small diamond which can cost them just $50 in Liberia, can fetch up to $15,000 if it makes it all the way to a diamond-cutting place like Dubai or Tel Aviv.

Since rebels and militias are no longer in control in Liberia, diamond smugglers say their business has eased.

That's not the case in Danane, where a Guinean jewelry maker says rebels are getting more and more involved.

"You got to cooperate with the rebels, because no administration is working, anything we're doing, we're doing sometimes undercover, we got no facilities, no paper like before. It's not easy like before," he said. "You're doing something, the people have arms, we're afraid of them. You are confused, we don't know what to do."

Several hundred kilometers to the east, through a nearly impassable dirt road, with some holes the size of trucks, is the arid diamond producing region of Seguela.

Here too, jewelry stores are doing brisk business, selling necklaces and chains at lower than normal prices, usually to French peacekeepers.

Jewelry maker Alassane Daou explains diamonds are only for the rich, and that most of the diamonds extracted from the rebel region are actually smuggled out.

A young man, Soumahoro Yaya works in the jewelry shop when he's not extracting diamonds from small streams near the town of Tortiya, further north. He explains how the diamond business works. He says if you want to extract diamonds, first you need to pay off a local villager, as well as hire rebel protection and then you get free room and board in a camp run by a contractor.

But Yaya says he makes very little money, compared to what diamonds fetch when they arrive at their final destination. He says he can make $40 when he finds a nice diamond, but that some of these are probably worth tens of thousands of dollars on international markets.

Sometimes , he says, he's tempted to find his own circuit, but he says, it quickly gets over his head. He says rebels are making more and more money off of the illicit trade with kickbacks and by taxing cars coming in and out of diamond areas.

According to traffickers in Liberia and diamond workers in Ivory Coast, some of the diamonds are bought locally by Lebanese businessmen who also run hotels, where rooms and food are free.

But rebel commanders in Seguela prevented a VOA team of reporters from accessing Tortiya, saying it was up to another rebel jurisdiction close to the border with Mali. Some rebels have said they are working to stop illegal diamond trafficking, while others say it's not that big of an enterprise.

A team of experts working for the United Nations did its own investigation in northern Ivory Coast in July 2005. Their report says it appears diamond production is at a level of 300,000 carats per year.

The experts believe diamond revenue provides an important economic income for the rebels.

Based on such reports, the former colonial power France has called for an embargo on diamonds from Ivory Coast, adding to the existing embargo on weapons, in efforts to end the three-year civil war.

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