Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Liberia ships first post-war diamonds

Liberia has shipped its first consignment of diamonds since the lifting of U.N. sanctions that blocked the export of so-called "blood diamonds" used to fuel years of war, officials said Sunday.

A shipment valued at about $222,000 left Liberia last week, government spokesman Laurence Bropleh said. He declined to name the exporting company or give details on the shipment's destination.

The Liberian government received a royalty of about $6,000 from the shipment, said Gabriel Williams, a deputy government spokesman.

"This amount may look small but we have to start from somewhere," Williams said.

The precious gems were a major force in the cross-border conflict that ravaged Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone for more than a decade. Former Liberian President Charles Taylor has been accused of using diamond wealth to arm fighters known for hacking off people's limbs and conscripting children.

Both Taylor's forces and rebel fighters were charged with looting Liberia's small diamond reserves to buy arms, along with smuggling gems from Sierra Leone's more expansive diamond fields for export through Liberian ports.

The United Nations imposed sanctions on Liberia's diamonds in May 2001 and, to comply with the sanctions, the Liberian government placed a moratorium on all mining.

Liberia finally emerged from its civil strife in 2003, with Taylor's ouster.

The U.N. removed sanctions this April, citing Liberia's efforts to provide controls and tracking of diamonds, and the Liberian government lifted its moratorium in late July.

Liberia has identified at least three diamond clusters along its border with Sierra Leone that it hopes to develop, Williams said.

Liberia remains one of the world's poorest countries, battered by civil wars from that left 200,000 people dead and displaced half the country's 3 million people. Government officials hope a restored diamond trade will create jobs in a country with 85 percent unemployment.

Before sanctions, the government estimated that about $600,000 worth of the gems were smuggled out of the country annually, with very little going through legal export channels. Diamonds have historically been a very small segment of Liberia's export sector, which is dominated by rubber and timber.

Liberia submitted its application in March to join the Kimberley Process, a voluntary 71-nation group created out of the furor over diamond-funded wars in Angola, Congo, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Members agree to trade only certified diamonds. In June, Liberia attended a meeting as a full Kimberley Process member for the first time.

Liberia ships first post-war diamonds