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Rebels trade gems for guns

Sierra Leone war lives on diamonds and weapons

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The guns come from Libya, Ukraine and Bulgaria, snaking their way from distant arms factories to the dense forests of West Africa and into the hands of a vicious rebel movement. From the other direction come small chips of carbon — diamonds that end up in trading houses in New York, Antwerp and Tel Aviv.

And right in the middle of it all, according to a growing chorus of international accusations, are two African presidents whose poverty-ravaged nations have become the main conduits for millions of dollars in weapons and gems moving in and out of rebel-held Sierra Leone.

The governments of Charles Taylor, the former warlord turned Liberian president, and Blaise Compaore, the president of Burkina Faso, are accused of funneling guns to rebels who have wreaked years of horror on Sierra Leone, and of smuggling out the diamonds they mine.

"All the available evidence supports the allegations that Liberia and Burkina Faso, particularly their two presidents, have been deeply involved with the rebels," said Sierra Leone's information minister, Julius Spencer. His words were echoed by American and British officials, who lashed out at the two nations during recent U.N. hearings.

Officials from both countries denied the charges, demanding proof and pledging to cooperate with investigators.

Regional officials and diplomats say Liberia remains the main pipeline, since it shares a border with Sierra Leone.

But the rebel Revolutionary United Front has close ties to both countries and uses its connections to help pay for a war that has left Sierra Leone bankrupt, tens of thousands of people dead and thousands more mutilated in a campaign of terror.

A top Sierra Leonean official familiar with the smuggling network, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Burkina Faso provides the end-user certificates that weapons companies require to ship arms.

Burkina Faso buys the weapons from Ukraine or Bulgaria — or is given them by Libya — and the guns are repackaged and flown to Liberia, the official said. From there, the weapons — from light arms to shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles — are often hand-carried through the thick jungle to rebel bases.

The official said testimony by rebel defectors and intelligence agents in all three countries supported the assertions.

Flowing the other way is a stream of uncut diamonds from rebel-controlled diamond fields, where thousands of diggers sift silt in search of gems.

While some diamonds go directly to the private market, others are paid to rebels in a semi-formalized taxation system, Sierra Leone-based diamond dealers say. RUF diamonds are then taken to Liberia and either sold or smuggled to Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast or Guinea, then sold to diamond brokers.

Liberia's own diamond production in recent years is estimated at between 100,000 and 150,000 carats — worth less than $10 million. However, it has exported 6 million carats of RUF diamonds worth $300 million, U.S. officials say.

The rebels earn an estimated $30-50 million, and perhaps as much as $125 million a year from illicit diamond sales, according to Richard Holbrooke, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Speaking at a U.N. hearing on Sierra Leone last week, U.S. diplomats warned both countries could face consequences if the trade continues — including a freeze on foreign assets and visa restrictions.

But a top Liberian official was unconcerned by sanction threats. "We don't want handouts from the United States. We don't want gifts from Britain," said Cyril Allen, the chairman of Liberia's ruling National Patriotic Party and Taylor's close friend.

While American officials have provided few details on their accusations, Stephen Pattison, head of the United Nations Department in the British Foreign Office, described a series of meetings between RUF, Liberian and Burkina Faso officials.

He said three rebels — one carrying diamonds to pay for Burkina Faso "material support" — traveled with Taylor to a June 5 meeting with Compaore in Burkina Faso. Days later, one of the rebels flew to Monrovia, Liberia's capital, to buy more equipment and meet Taylor, who Pattison said has arranged transport of arms, munition, food, fuel and soldiers for the rebels.

The ties between Taylor, Compaore and Foday Sankoh, the now-imprisoned RUF leader, stretch back more than a decade to when Taylor and Sankoh trained together in Libya.

Compaore, diplomats say, is one of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's most important friends in West Africa. Gadhafi, who has been trying to increase his regional influence in recent years, used Burkina Faso to funnel support to Taylor during the Liberian civil war, and now to the RUF, they say.

Burkina Faso, a little-known semi-desert nation, has a life expectancy of just 46 years, according to U.N. figures, and an adult literacy rate of just 19 percent. Though Liberia's civil war ended four years ago, the country remains little more than half-rebuilt wreckage. It is a place where the only electricity comes from generators and the only running water comes from pumps.