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CNN Insight

Deadly Diamonds In Sierra Leone

Aired May 17, 2000 - 0:30 a.m. ET


JONATHAN MANN, INSIGHT (voice-over): Death by diamonds. Sierra Leone is in a state of confusion. Partners in a peace agreement are on war footing. UN troops are not quite neutral anymore. The one constant? You can measure in carats.

(on camera): Hello, and welcome.

No one knows where the most important man in Sierra Leone is right now. He's rebel leader Foday Sankoh, and he hasn't been seen for days. Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front has fought the Freetown government for eight years and brutalized thousands of civilians. And although it signed a peace accord last July, the RUF has been fighting on and lately taking UN peacekeepers hostage.

Some of those hostages have been freed, but Sankoh and the RUF's intentions are still a mystery. No one is really sure they want peace. What they do seem to want are the country's diamonds. On our program today - Sierra Leone's stone age.

We begin with Alex Thompson reporting from the frontline town of Masiaka.


ALEX THOMPSON, CHANNEL 4 REPORTER (voice-over): In an emergency move, the call has gone out for former members of the Sierra Leone army to rejoin their units. Perhaps some had waited to see which way this war would go, but with the rebels being pushed daily further into the jungle, there is no apparent shortage of volunteers.

Masiaka this morning, where the vultures eat the bodies of the rebel soldiers. Two days ago, these regulars and militias were almost hysterical with tension. But now, everything is calm - the rebels pushed several miles north from here.

But support for these people is poor. A dead cat lies roasted in the soldiers' cooking pot. As one of their commanders said, "We have to live like the rebels here, live off the jungle." And the way they spoke of torturing their captives indicates it's an everyday part of military life here for both sides.

(on camera): How do you torture them? You talk about torturing them? Why is that necessary? What do you do?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Of course, if we come in contact, we're firing to kill. If we captured, we (INAUDIBLE), we remove the eyes. We'll do everything that they are doing to the people so that they feel they're doing the same to us.

THOMPSON: Back in Freetown, the United Nations operation was reinforced by more troops today - this time, 150 Indians. But the main UN focus here is getting its hostages out of the jungle from the hands of the rebels. It's known that 15 UN personnel are safe in neighboring Liberia, and these Kenyans also arrived today at the airport at Lungi near Freetown. That leaves 347 totally unaccounted for and some 135 remain the subject of confused negotiations with the rebels.

Around the city, the paras and Nigerian UN troops have been having what a spokesman called "liaison difficulties." This morning, paratroopers told us Jordanian, Indian, Nigerian - all the UN units were gutless or a waste of space.

But the Nigerians, unlike the paras, have years of jungle fighting experience behind them here, and they don't appreciate the paras turning up on point duty, not being part of the UN, and rearranging their roadblocks.

JULIUS SPENCER, SIERRA LEONE INFORMATION MINISTER: The average Nigerian is a very proud person. Having a feeling that some other force, some other nationals are perhaps trying to show them off or saying that they don't know what they're doing, I would expect that the average Nigerian would take offense.

THOMPSON: The minister then described how documents found at the house of the rebel leader Foday Sankoh revealed diamond smuggling on what he said was a colossal scale, and he urged the world to close down this trade used, in part, to buy arms.

SPENCER: Ninety-nine percent of them are being smuggled out through Liberia and Guinea and are getting onto the international market, and something can be done if there's a will in the international community to do something about it.

THOMPSON: More immediately, though, the government is confident the rebels are retreating. Schools in Freetown have reopened, and today, civilians who fled the country were coming home at the airstrip, judging the current crisis has passed.

Alex Thompson, Channel 4 News, Freetown, Sierra Leone.


MANN: CNN's Ben Wedeman has also been traveling to the front lines. He joins us now with what he has seen. Ben?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jonathan, we were with government troops at the front line this afternoon just about 45 minutes after they'd taken the village of Mavura (ph), which is about six miles up the road from Masiaka. They fight in small groups. Their most powerful weaponry is a heavy-caliber machine gun mounted on a jeep. Several of the soldiers were lightly wounded, but the nearest medic was back in Masiaka, and he'd only arrived today, as a matter of fact, the first medic at this front line after a week of fighting.

It's worth just mentioning that a few moments ago, I was with the commander of those troops who came back this evening to Freetown when we heard in the distance British troops not far from here conducting a live fire exercise. He turned to me and said, "If we only had that kind of weaponry, we could defeat the rebels."

And of course, there is frustration among the SLA, the Sierra Leonean army, that they really are poorly equipped, poorly trained. They have almost no logistical support, while they come back to Freetown and they see all these UN troops who have very heavy weaponry compared to them, the British troops.

So there is frustration at the front. Jonathan?

MANN: Ben, where are the government troops moving towards? As they're taking territory away from the rebels, what are they fighting for?

WEDEMAN: What they're trying to do is move up the main road from Freetown into the interior. Their goal at this point is the town of Makeni, which is in central Sierra Leone. What they're trying to so is secure the road. The problem, of course, with that is that you have the road, but on both sides you have this vast bush in which the rebels, the RUF, have been operating for years. And therefore, it's sort of a Vietnam-like situation where they control towns. They control the roads during the day. But at night, it's up for grabs. Jonathan?

MANN: We are seeing reports which suggest that the fighting has largely trailed off, that the episode over the last few days is essentially over. Is that your sense?

WEDEMAN: No. Matter of fact, all indications that we received up at the front today is that, yes, they did spend a day or two regrouping, trying to resupply. But as we saw today, they're moving ahead. They're trying to press forward, but there is a fear among the troops that they've run out of momentum as their supply lines become more and more stretched and they move forward ahead with very little support.

In the past, we saw that the distance between the front line maintained by the SLA and the areas controlled by the UN were quite close together. We were with some Nigerians who were, in fact, leading the SLA forward. But now, it's a very long way between where the SLA has pushed forward to and where you find your first UN troops.


MANN: CNN's Ben Wedeman, thanks very much.

We have to take a break. In a moment, though, we'll talk about a peace that never had much of a chance. Stay with us.


MANN (voice-over): Charles Taylor is a Liberian warlord who fought his way to prominence and then waged a successful campaign for his country's presidency. His own years as a guerrilla leader were marked with terrible brutality. But he is the closest ally of the Revolutionary United Front commander Foday Sankoh. And with Sankoh missing, Taylor is a crucial man in a complex equation.

(on camera): Welcome back.

Charles Taylor negotiated for the initial release of seized peacekeepers. He told reporters Tuesday that some of the UN peacekeepers who are still captive are sick, and some, he said, are wounded. He said if the government wants to get them back, it has to stop fighting the RUF. The UN is, at the very least, listening to Taylor because it has no other obvious way to free its men.

Joining us now to talk more about the UN and the situation in Sierra Leone is Winston Ojukutu-Macaulay, a journalist with West Africa magazine who was the BBC's correspondent in Sierra Leone from1995 until last year.

Thanks so much for being with us. Let me ask you, first of all, is Sierra Leone moving forward or sliding back? Is it getting close at all to the peace that it was hoping for?

WINSTON OJUKUTU-MACAULAY, WEST AFRICA MAGAZINE: Well, that question can be answered only when we know the whereabouts or the fate of Corporal Foday Sankoh., whether Foday Sankoh is alive or whether Sankoh is dead and also whether UN can bring in Charles Taylor to actually deal with the crisis in Sierra Leone.

MANN: Where did this crisis come from? It seemed that until recently people were optimistic. Now there are reports that suggest that, well, there's reason for optimism again. Why has this peace agreement come apart so completely?

OJUKUTU-MACAULAY: Because President Charles Taylor of Liberia actually deceived President Kabbah, and also Foday Sankoh himself was not actually dedicated or committee to the Lome peace accord. And on top of that, there were other problems, particularly with regards to the UN lack of funds to actually finance their peacekeeping troops in Sierra Leone.

MANN: OK, you've covered a lot of ground, and it's a complex situation people are not familiar with. So let's start with the three personalities you've just mentioned - Charles Taylor of Liberia; Foday Sankoh, who we've been talking about - the rebel leader who has disappeared; and Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, the president of Sierra Leone.

What is their relationship like, and why is that the key, to your mind?

OJUKUTU-MACAULAY: Well, President Tejan Kabbah himself, as an individual, is a decent and fine gentleman. But what events in the last few years, if I could put it that way, has actually revealed is that President Tejan Kabbah seems to be having some very serious problems actually governing the country in terms of security and intelligence.

President Tejan Kabbah went out of his way to actually bring Corporal Foday Sankoh and even Charles Taylor into the process. But what events have actually revealed is that President Tejan Kabbah is not sort of politically matured enough to have actually read between the lines, to actually say, hey, guys - I mean, I'm referring now to the West, particularly America and Britain, that, hey, we can't do business with these guys.

MANN: I'm not clear on what you're saying. Do you think that the president owes it to Foday Sankoh and Charles Taylor to represent them better?

OJUKUTU-MACAULAY: No, what I'm saying is President Tejan Kabbah is not sort of - in terms as a politician is not matured enough to have actually seen between the lines to realize that President Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh were both deceiving him when after the signing of the Lome peace accord, Charles Taylor promised President Kabbah that he will go out of his way to make sure that the Lome peace accord was actually implemented. And of course.

MANN: So if the president of Sierra Leone is deceived into thinking these men want peace, what's the alternative? Is it war, and are we seeing now, as the Sierra Leonean army moves forward, an attempt to get through military means what the peace accord would not deliver?

OJUKUTU-MACAULAY: I think whether Corporal Foday Sankoh is alive or dead, the answer now is Charles Taylor - I mean, Charles Taylor actually negotiating for the release of the 150 or so UN peacekeepers. Also revealed that Charles Taylor is deeply involved in the Sierra Leone crisis and that he has been fooling not only the people of Sierra Leone, but international community as well.

I think it is the duty, the responsibility of the American government and even the British government as well to actually put it to Charles Taylor that this has to stop. I mean, yes, people are talking about Qadhafi. But Qadhafi is some sort of a miles away. What we do need is to put a stop to Charles Taylor. Charles Taylor is actually running a sort of rogue state, and that rogue state has actually led to the collapse of Sierra Leone.

MANN: What is it that binds or used to bind Charles Taylor to Foday Sankoh? What interest did they have in common?

OJUKUTU-MACAULAY: Revenge. First of all, Charles Taylor - it's a pretty complex history, but I'll just make it brief. Charles Taylor was actually in Sierra Leone in the late `80s when he was actually detained by former President Momoh. And he was then released and then ended up somewhere in Abidjan, where he was used again by the American government to actually launch an attack in Liberia, so people claim. How true that is, history will tell.

But again, Charles Taylor started the war in Liberia. And if you can recollect, Sierra Leone was the ECOMOG base to actually launch attack in Monrovia, Liberia, when Charles Taylor was a rebel leader fighting President Toe (ph). And because of that, Charles Taylor actually went out and tell the people of Sierra Leone that they would taste the bitterness of war. And that bitterness I must say regrettably Sierra Leoneans have been actually tasting since 1992.

MANN: Winston Ojukutu-Macaulay of West Africa magazine, thanks for talking with us.

We have to take a break. But when we come back - how the enormous riches in Sierra Leone have paid for the country's ruin. Stay with us.


MANN (voice-over): Sierra Leone is diamond rich, extremely rich. When the gems were discovered in 1930, the British colonial government tried in vain to slap strict controls on mining. It's estimated that at its height, illegal mining in Sierra Leone accounted for 20 percent of the world's supply.

(on camera): Welcome back.

Diamonds and oil should have helped turn Sierra Leone into a prosperous place. Instead, the natural resources have been divisive, maybe even a disaster. The government runs the oil fields. Foday Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front mines the gems.

CNN's Amanda Kibel has more.


AMANDA KIBEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Here, along the banks of Sierra Leone's largest river lies what many believe is one of the main reasons that the war will not stop. Diamonds - some of the highest quality in the world, close to the surface and easy to mine. And it is these, experts say, that have armed, fueled and fed the Revolutionary United Front rebels in the brutal war with the government of Sierra Leone.

CHARMIAN GOOCH, GLOBAL WITNESS: The underlying problem is despite the peace process, the rebels were able to have continued and free access to diamonds and to sell those diamonds. So they were able to keep generating revenue, and that has to undermine any political or peace process.

KIBEL: It's the sale of these diamonds on the open market, estimated to earn more than $70 million each year, that has prompted the British government to call for tighter controls of the diamond industry.

PETER HAIN, BRITISH MINISTER OF STATE: Every day that goes by, every week that goes by, every month that goes by, these diamonds are fueling more of - these blood diamonds are fueling more mutilation, more savagery, more war, more conflict, more deaths, more maimings. Now, I think that the whole international diamond industry and the international community ought to really face up to their responsibility.

KIBEL: The British government wants the origin of all diamonds to be verified to stop the trade in so-called "conflict" or "blood diamonds." At present, the country of extraction of a diamond is not a requirement for its import or sale. Without it, it is very difficult to tell with certainty where a diamond comes from.

Diamonds have funded conflicts in Africa for more than a decade, particularly in Angola, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone. In reality, diamonds from these countries are only a small percentage of the multi-billion world diamond market, but their impact is enormous.

Sierra Leone's RUF rebels started with an army of just 400 volunteers. Diamonds have turned it into a 20,000 strong, heavily armed force of paid soldiers. Some 75,000 people have died in this almost nine-year-old civil war.

De Beers, the world's leading diamond mining company, which only five months ago ceased buying diamonds on the open markets in Africa, concedes the industry has been slow to react and reluctant to self- regulate. De Beers says only government legislation can ensure these controls are enforced.

ANDREW COXON, DE BEERS: But the most important thing is to increase government support with new laws. This is new laws to make it possible for diamonds that are found to be out of line with the import regulations to be confiscated.

KIBEL: But legislation may not be enough. Experts of Global Witness, a British think-tank that studies links between conflict and natural resources, say the industry has to take responsibility for its own actions.

(on camera); And they say so do the public. Retail sales of diamonds reached $56 billion last year. Global Witness says if even half of these buyers demanded proof of where their diamonds came from and refused to buy diamonds of dubious origins, they could put some serious pressure on the industry through its bottom line.

Amanda Kibel, CNN, London.


MANN: Alex Yearsley works for Global Witness and joins us now from our London studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

We heard on this program a few days back from the ambassador of Sierra Leone who said that this war, this civil war isn't about politics, it is just about money, just about control of diamonds. Do you think that's true?

ALEX YEARSLEY, GLOBAL WITNESS: Yes, absolutely. What we're seeing at the moment is a continuation of the war throughout the `90s, which has been entirely financed through diamonds.

MANN: Can you explain how it works for us? How does the RUF take uncut diamonds that it finds in the fields or streams of Sierra Leone and turn them into money and into guns?

YEARSLEY: They are very easily found in Sierra Leone. There are alluvial diamond diggings which means anyone can go there with a bucket and spade, with very basic mining equipment and literally pull them out of the river. Now, there exists quite an extensive network called traders within Sierra Leone have been there since the 1930s. They go around, they buy the diamonds up from the RUF, and then they're illegally exported by Liberia, by the Ivory Coast, by Guinea.

And they hand over the cash, and with that cash, they can purchase weapons. Also, sometimes arms dealers come in direct and hand over weapons for diamonds.

MANN: Just a few moments ago, we were talking to a journalist who is actually from Sierra Leone, who was talking about Liberia and Charles Taylor in particular as being the key to what's going to happen in Sierra Leone now. And he said that it's politics. It's the desire for revenge that unites the RUF leadership to Charles Taylor. Is it also the diamond export business?

YEARSLEY: Extensively, yes. It is, in many ways, Taylor sees Sierra Leone as his little private purse, a way of keeping himself in power as well. He has to spend a lot of money on his own personal protection in Liberia, and he needs that diamond revenue from Sierra Leone because Liberia doesn't actually produce very many diamonds itself. And so it needs the cooperation of Foday Sankoh to provide him with the diamond revenue.

MANN: Foday Sankoh, if he is still alive, the RUF, if he is not, still controls the diamond mines. And interestingly, even under the peace accord last July, they were to - if I understand this correctly - maintain control. Even if there were peace in Sierra Leone, Foday Sankoh was to remain in control of the ministry that would be in charge of mines. Do I have that right, because it seems like an extraordinary thing to give away in a peace negotiation?

YEARSLEY: No, you haven't got that right. What was established under the Lome peace accord was that a strategic minerals commission was to be established of which Foday Sankoh was to be chair of. This, in fact, hasn't actually met yet. What it was supposed to do and is supposed to do is to do a strategic review of Sierra Leone's natural resources and not just diamonds. Sierra Leone has many other natural resources.

And Foday Sankoh basically saw this as his chance to negotiate illegal deals with foreign companies, and it hasn't actually totally usurped the ministry of minerals, which is actually there and fully functioning in Sierra Leone. And this has been a disastrous move.

It sets a terrible precedent for warlord leaders who basically can now see that if they hack off as many arms and legs as they want, they will get what they want in the end.

MANN: It's people outside Sierra Leone who fundamentally buy the diamonds. And as we just heard in that report from Mandy Kibel, there are some suggestions that they could influence this trade. Do you think that's realistic? If governments or ordinary consumers were more organized, could they put an end to this trade from Sierra Leone?

YEARSLEY: They could, and the trade could as well. Currently, the diamond trade is in a terrible state of flux. They see themselves facing a potential consumer backlash akin to the fur trade campaign. I would not be surprised if, in the next few months, if we keep seeing scenes of atrocities that we're seeing at the moment in Sierra Leone, that people will start demonstrating outside diamond jewelry shops, ask people to hand in their diamonds.

This is something we do not advocate ourselves, as there are several countries in Southern Africa that are very dependent on diamond revenue - Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. And it's very important that a consumer campaign boycott does not actually occur.

The best way to deal with this is if the trade itself regulates itself in a manner that it can. It can get rid of the problem of conflict diamonds if it wants to.

MANN: Alex Yearsley of Global Witness, thanks so much for talking with us.

That's INSIGHT for this day. I'm Jonathan Mann. Stay with us. There's more news ahead.




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