Blood diamond fears in Ivory Coast
New York - Ivory Coast is the world's biggest remaining source of conflict diamonds and the main international watchdog says it is stepping up efforts to stop the glittering trade financing new conflict in the tense country.
Tens, possibly hundreds, of millions of dollars worth of diamonds have in recent years been smuggled out of Ivory Coast, where Alassane Ouattara - backed by the international community - and incumbent Laurent Gbagbo are in a showdown for the presidency.
Private monitor groups say most get fake certificates of origin and consumers buy them as end of year holiday gifts without knowing where they really came from.
But the head of the Kimberley Process watchdog said "laborious" work is being done by geologists, customs officers and other investigators based on lessons learned from earlier "blood diamond" wars in Africa.
"The KP system is highly vigilant on making sure that these diamonds will not serve as a source of financing" for any group in Ivory Coast, Boaz Hirsch, the Israeli chairperson of the Kimberley group, told AFP in an exclusive interview.
The 75-nation watchdog was set up as a result of a meeting in Kimberley, South Africa, 10 years ago as the diamond trade fuelled devastating wars in Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
'Unable or unwilling'
Diamonds from the Seguela and Tortiya regions of northern Ivory Coast helped pay for the civil war in 2002 and tore apart the West African country. A UN group of experts reported this year that despite a UN embargo since 2005 the diamond trade goes on.
Ironically, the ban originated out of claims that the diamond trade was used to support the rebels behind the 2002 rebellion against Gbagbo, the man that the UN now wants to stand down.
The UN experts' report said neighbouring Burkina Faso, Guinea, Liberia and Mali were "unable or unwilling" to enforce the UN diamond embargo.
Kimberley Process leaders, who work with the World Diamond Council and international customs authorities, consider this a rare blot on its record.
"The only diamonds recognised today as blood diamonds are from Cote d'Ivoire," said Hirsch, using the country's widely used French name.
"The KP puts a lot of emphasis on combating smuggling of Ivorian diamonds to neighbouring countries.
"To the best of my knowledge, it is less than in previous years. We saw there was a surge in exports of diamonds from neighbouring countries. We approached these countries and we received cooperation."
The efforts include making a "geological footprint" - a form of DNA mapping - of diamonds from Sierra Leone, Liberia and other countries "so that we can distinguish between them and Ivorian blood diamonds".
"It is done through laborious, tedious work," said Hirsch, with geologists doing the footprints, experts helping governments set up anti-smuggling programmes and Kimberley this year launching "strategic cooperation" with the World Customs Organisation.
Hirsch, who will stand down at the end of the week as the Kimberley chairperson, said the watchdog has had an undoubted impact on the rough diamonds trade.
"I am not familiar with any other mineral which is so heavily regulated and I think the numbers indicate that we have worked with a considerable degree of success."
The group estimates that its members account for about 99% of world production of rough diamonds. When it formally started work in 2003 about 15% were conflict diamonds, now the figure is below one percent, Hirsch said.
In 2009 Kimberley issued about 40 000 certificates for about 370 million carats of diamonds.
But it faces more tensions in Zimbabwe, where the diamond-rich Marange fields are another source of international concern.
The Global Witness non-government group says efforts by the ruling party of President Robert Mugabe to seize control of Marange's wealth "signals the return of the blood diamond".
After widespread concerns over reported human rights abuses, Kimberley countries arranged a scheme to allow Zimbabwe to return to the international diamond trade this year and two shipments were made.
But this was halted after a new review in August. Hirsch said the review found that the Marange area "is less chaotic than it was in the past but it also identified that compliance has not been reached in all areas".
Until Kimberley countries can agree on Zimbabwe's case its diamonds cannot be exported.
"Of course this has not made the Zimbabwe government very happy but this is what needs to be done in order to maintain the credibility of the process. Full stop," said Hirsch, who has faced strong criticism from African nations over the embargo.
Zimbabwe has meant a tough year for Hirsch who has held Israel's most prominent international position.
Israel's UN ambassador Meron Reuben said the country was able to use its extensive expertise on diamonds, as one of world's biggest trading centres.
"Israel is deeply committed to ensuring that their sale does not lead to conflict and bloodshed in other parts of the globe," commented Reuben.