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Murders Forcus Attention on Organized Crime in South African Diamond Industry - 2003-11-10

The widow of a slain Israeli diamond dealer was murdered in Johannesburg as she was driving to court for the trial of her husband's alleged murderer. The brazen attack is focusing attention on organized crime in South Africa's lucrative diamond industry.

Police say prominent Johannesburg socialite Hazel Crane was driving in a wealthy northern suburb when a gunman leapt from behind a concrete trash bin and opened fire at her through the passenger side window. She was struck by at least four bullets, including one that hit her in the head. Her passenger was wounded in the hand.

Police say it has all the markings of an organized hit. They say they are still searching for the killer and they are also investigating whether Mrs. Crane's murder is connected to the killing of her estranged husband, Israeli diamond dealer Shai Avissar in 1999.

Mrs. Crane was shot on her way to court, where she has been attending the trial of the man accused of her husband's murder. She was scheduled to testify against the alleged killer, Lior Saadt, but contrary to initial reports, she was not expected to take the stand on Monday. Mrs. Crane had already survived one attempt on her life several months ago. It is not clear what impact her killing will have on the outcome of the trial.

Lior Saadt survived an earlier assassination attempt when a gunman opened fire on the police vehicle taking him to court. Like Mrs. Crane's husband, Mr. Saadt is an Israeli citizen and a diamond dealer. Prosecutors also say both men were involved in organized crime.

The brazen murder of Mrs. Crane has focused attention on the so-called Israeli mafia in South Africa, a shadowy group that organized crime researchers know little about.

Indeed, it is hard to find an analyst who can speak with much confidence about the issue. Some of the country's most noted organized crime experts say they do not even know for sure whether an Israeli mafia really exists here, let alone how active it is.

But one analyst whose work has touched on the Israeli mob is Jenni Irish, a Durban-based researcher for the consulting firm Injobo Nebandla, specializing in organized crime. She says she has seen evidence that a group of Israeli drug traffickers were trying to establish a market in South Africa in the mid-1980s, when international organized crime had not yet gained much of a foothold here. "There are indications that Israeli mafia people have been operating in this country for some time, and unlike many of the other transnational groups, operated in the country pre-1990," she says.

Ms. Irish says she has seen some evidence that Israeli mobsters have also dealt in illegal conflict diamonds, which are used to fund arms purchases for rebel movements and corrupt governments.

Conflict diamonds are mined in war-torn African countries, but because of international sanctions cannot be legally sold on the open market. So they have to be laundered through legitimate diamond-producing countries, such as South Africa. An international campaign is underway to clean up the diamond industry, but experts say the trade in illicit diamonds continues.

Ms. Irish says the drug and diamond markets are sometimes linked. "I know that when we were also looking at the drug trafficking within Africa, some of that drug trafficking also interfaced with some of the illicit diamond trading. One of the things that did arise was that whereas Antwerp, in the past, had been used as a place where a lot of the conflict diamonds were going, there seemed to be indications that Tel Aviv was becoming a point where conflict diamonds were going," she says.

The slain socialite, Hazel Crane, was a close friend of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the ex-wife of former President Nelson Mandela. The two women often sat next to each other in the courtroom, where Mrs. Crane attended every session of the trial of her husband's alleged killer and depended on her friend for moral support.

The trial continued as usual on Monday in the Johannesburg High Court, but Mrs. Crane's usual seat was left empty.