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US Congress Tackles 'Blood Diamonds' Trade - 2002-02-14

Members of the U.S. Congress are taking steps to prevent the international diamond trade from funding possible terrorist operations. At a Senate committee hearing Wednesday, officials said, while there is no direct evidence linking al-Qaida to diamonds from Sierra Leone, the gems from the West African country have been used to finance a decade of violence.

During Sierra Leone's brutal civil war, the rebel Revolutionary United Front seized control of much of the nation's diamond fields. The profits from these jewels helped to fund a war that resulted in the deaths of more than 50,000 people, left millions homeless, and included atrocities such as mass rapes and mutilations. Diamonds have also played a significant role in financing conflicts in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Efforts are underway in the U.S. Congress to regulate the international trade of conflict diamonds, or so-called "blood diamonds." The United States is the biggest diamond customer, accounting for about 70 percent of the world's diamond trade.

Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois stressed it is vital for the United States to pay attention to the origin of its jewels. He said, "We have a moral obligation to ask the question where are they coming from, how do they get here? If they come through the bloody hands of terrorists, whether it's the RUF or Hezbollah, I think that that is a red flag to all Americans; we need to do something to police this situation."

According by a report by the U.S. General Accounting Office, diamonds are used for illicit trade because they are a high-value commodity that is easily concealed and transported. They are mined in remote areas, and their origin is difficult to trace.

Recent news reports have linked the diamond trade in Sierra Leone to the al-Qaida network. Sierra Leone's ambassador to the United States, John Leigh, says he has no direct knowledge of an al-Qaida or Hezbollah presence in his country.

"The Lebanese in Sierra Leone have been supporting various factions in Lebanon going back to the '80s," said Ambassador Leigh. "So I can say that, if al-Qaida comes into the picture, it will be a very easy thing for them to do, to camouflage their presence in Sierra Leone. But there's a strong, powerful Middle Eastern presence in Sierra Leone, going back about 100 years."

The United States is among the countries currently participating in the Kimberley Process, an international pact aimed at developing a diamond certification program that would prevent the flow of conflict diamonds. The program has been endorsed by the United Nations.