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Sierra Leone Rebels Deny Reports Diamond Sales Linked to Al-Qaida - 2001-11-03

Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front rebels are denying a report that they helped Osama bin Laden reap millions of dollars through illicit diamond sales. The RUF rebels have fought a 10 year war against Sierra Leone's government for control of the country's rich diamond fields.

RUF officials are dismissing the report in Friday's Washington Post, telling VOA there is no truth whatsoever to the allegations of dealings between the insurgents and Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the September terrorist attacks in the United States.

Rebel sources insist the group has never had any connection to Osama bin Laden or his al-Qaida network.

The newspaper report says that for the past three years, the Sierra Leone insurgents have sold gems below market prices to diamond dealers working on behalf of al-Qaida. The dealers are then alleged to have resold their merchandise for large profits in Antwerp, Belgium, the world's diamond trading capital.

The Washington Post report says there are no clear indications yet of the sums al-Qaida could have netted through diamond smuggling. However, estimates of yearly profits from alleged sales of RUF diamond range from $25 to 125 million. Terrorism experts say even a fraction of those sums are enough to keep a small terrorist network.

The United Nations says the sale of so-called "blood diamonds" by the Sierra Leone rebels fueled the country's 10 year old civil war. The RUF waged a notoriously brutal campaign against the government, killing and maiming tens of thousands of civilians, before agreeing to a ceasefire last May.

However, the rebels are not the only people alleged to have traded "blood diamonds." On Thursday, police arrested Sierra Leone's transport and communications minister, Momoh Pujeh, on suspicion of illegal gem sales.

The United Nations says the wartime plunder of diamond fields is also a persistent problem in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.