Blood diamonds fund Hezbollah

Koidu, Sierra Leone - Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrilla movement is systematically siphoning profits from West Africa's multimillion-dollar diamond trade, in part by threatening the Lebanese merchants who long have handled much of the region's diamond business, US diplomats in West Africa charge.

The allegations, supported by independent analysts but denied by some traders, claim more pervasive, organised and co-ercive Hezbollah profiteering from West Africa's diamond trade than most US officials have previously acknowledged.

"One thing that's incontrovertible is the financing of Hezbollah. It's not even an open secret; there is no secret," Larry Andre, deputy chief of mission for the US Embassy in diamond-rich Sierra Leone, told The Associated Press.

"There's a lot of social pressure and extortionate pressure brought to bear: 'You had better support our cause, or we'll visit your people back home'," Andre said, citing interviews by embassy staff with alleged Lebanese targets of the Hezbollah racketeering.

An estimated 100 000-plus Lebanese live in West Africa, where they have formed the core of the region's merchant class since they began sailing here over a century ago. Middle East crises of the 1970s and 1980s sent another wave of Lebanese immigrants to West Africa. Many Lebanese retain strong business, cultural and family ties to their homeland.

Funding Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade

Lebanon-based Hezbollah fought a guerrilla war against Israeli troops in south Lebanon over almost two decades, until the Israelis pulled out in 2000. Today the border is tense but mostly quiet. Hezbollah remains armed and hostile to Israel, but also has political and charity wings and funds the building of schools, clinics and mosques.

The movement is also known internationally for the bombings of the US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and of the US Embassy annex in Beirut in 1984 - earning it a slot on the US State Department's list of terror organisations. Until September 11, 2001, Hezbollah was estimated to have killed more Americans than any other terror group.

In recent years Hezbollah is alleged to have funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Palestinians' Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, funding attacks that have killed civilians within Israel.

Only 6 000 Lebanese are thought to remain in Sierra Leone after this country's vicious 1991-2002 war for control of the eastern diamond fields surrounding Koidu, West Africa's richest-known deposits, producing top-quality gems.

West Africa's so-called blood diamonds helped buy arms and fighters in insurgencies that roiled the region throughout the 1990s.

Legal exports have soared

With the end of fighting and the advent of an industry-backed certificate-of-origin programme for diamonds, Sierra Leone estimates its legal exports of the stones have soared from US$1.4m in 1999 to US$76m last year.

The US Embassy in Sierra Leone, citing experts, says between US$70- to US$100 million worth of rough gems still are smuggled out of the country each year.

It's due largely to the lingering illegal trade that Hezbollah can continue to extract cash by threats, beatings and destruction of property, analysts say.

Victims, many of whom may have business dealings they do not want exposed, have little legal recourse.

"They're (Hezbollah) asking for contributions and they're going to use the culture card and the nationality card," says Joseph Melrose, American ambassador to Sierra Leone between 1998 and 2001. "Will they use threats? Sure."

In December 2003, an airliner that crashed off the West Africa nation of Benin had on board an alleged Hezbollah courier, carrying US$2m in Hezbollah-bound funds, diplomats and news reports claimed.

In Lebanon, a Hezbollah official refused any comment when contacted by The Associated Press.

One of Sierra Leone's top diamond exporters denied any ties.

"This is a lie. There's never been any connection between these people and Hezbollah," said Kassim Basma, born in Sierra Leone to a Lebanese family.

Drug industry

"For me, I couldn't support them," Basma said. "For what? To cause myself problems?"

Matthew Levitt, with the US-based Washington Institute for Near East Policy, sees parallels with Hezbollah racketeering in the drug industry in South America.

Stepped-up enforcement there drove some top Hezbollah activists to West Africa, he said.

As a result, the group's illegal fund-raising efforts in the region - including protection rackets and threats - may be on the rise, said Levitt, a former FBI agent.

"As we crack down on one part of the world, things will crop up elsewhere," Levitt said.

In Koidu, Sierra Leone's diamond-trading centre, indigenous Sierra Leoneans make up only about 35 of the roughly 200 legal diamond buyers operating in the area, said Prince Saquee, chair of Koidu's Diamond Dealers Association. Most of the rest are Lebanese, Saquee said.

Among Koidu's burned-out, bullet-pocked buildings, hundreds of diamond buyers run heavily guarded storefronts with signs emblazoned with enormous, glittering cut diamonds.

Many in the US State Department and officials at US embassies in West Africa for years have played down any West Africa conduits to Hezbollah - saying any contributions to Hezbollah appeared to be on a voluntary individual basis rather than through any organized network.

End up in US

Alex Yearsley, of London-based Global Witness, alleges that the CIA and FBI long had tried to publicly minimise links between conflict diamonds and Islamic militant groups, including al-Qaeda.

The US security agents feared exposure of their own longtime links with Charles Taylor, the now ousted Liberian leader who played a main role in West Africa's insurgencies and blood diamond trade, Yearsley contended. Taylor received CIA payments until January 2001, Yearsley claimed, in a telephone interview.

Diplomats and some independent experts have questioned some of Global Witness's allegations about links between West Africa diamonds, al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, saying they are short on proof.

The fate of West Africa's diamonds ultimately bridges faiths and rivalries: Sold by the Lebanese merchants, much of the gems are brokered via Jewish or Israeli traders in Antwerp, Belgium and Tel Aviv, ending up finally in the United States, among the world's biggest diamond markets.

"To us, we don't see Christian or Muslim or Jew," said Basma, the Lebanese buyer. "We're businessmen."

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