Diamonds in Conflict Update

August 27, 2002

Diamonds in Conflict Update

As African nations involved in the conflict diamond crisis struggle to bring peace to their people, ongoing challenges remain. Here's an update:

Angola Needs Help
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan congratulated the Angolan government on the peace process, credited with halting 27 years of civil war, but said there was still much humanitarian work to do. After meeting with Angola's President Jose Eduardo dos Santos on Aug. 26, he told reporters, "Peace is within reach and the Angolan people who have suffered so many years of war will be able to hope for a peaceful, prosperous future."

Angola will need help from the international community and the U.N., Annan said on the second day of his two-day visit to Angola, according to the Associated Press. The war that destroyed most of the diamond- and oil-rich country's economy ended with a cease-fire in April after the death of rebel leader Jonas Savimbi. Aid groups say up to half a million people face starvation due to the conflict.

The conflict has driven 4 million people, about a third of the population, from their homes. Human rights groups blame the UNITA rebels and the Angolan army for the humanitarian crisis. The United Nations agreed last week to increase its support for Angola to help arrange and coordinate humanitarian aid, mobilize international aid, reintegrate demobilized UNITA guerrillas into society, help the government prepare for elections and support mine-clearing. The country is one of the most heavily land-mined in the world. There are approximately 4 million to 5 million mines spread across Angola and 60 people are killed or injured each month, the government says.

Liberian Rebels, Politicians Shun Peace Talks
A summit designed to bring together Liberia's rival political factions opened in Monrovia Aug. 24, but rebels fighting to overthrow President Charles Taylor and key opposition leaders failed to turn up, reports Reuters. The empty seats left little hope the national reconciliation conference could do much to end years of mayhem in the war-battered West African state, which is under U.N. sanctions for fomenting regional instability.

Rebels who have fought a ruinous two-year-old bush struggle to oust Taylor – the so-called Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy – so far refuse to sit at the same table as the president. These military and political opponents have held a series of parallel meetings to settle their internal differences and work out a way forward without Taylor.

Besides the rebels, key opposition figures including former presidential candidate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf were also no-shows, although organizers said they hoped they might join the talks – scheduled to continue for weeks – at a later stage. Sirleaf's party said it was boycotting the meeting because the government refused to lift a state of emergency imposed earlier this year and free a journalist and a human rights activist held on suspicion of being close to the rebels.

Many Western diplomats say getting rid of Taylor would be the best step toward ending a dozen years of conflict in the diamond-rich region which has left a quarter of a million dead. Liberia never recovered from a seven-year civil war which Taylor started in 1989. After fighting rival factions to a standstill, he won a presidential election in 1997. By then, fighting had moved to neighboring Sierra Leone and on to Guinea, only to return to Liberia in 2000. Accused of fueling regional wars by trading guns for illicit gems, Taylor's Liberia is under a U.N. ban on gem exports and travel by top officials as well as an arms embargo.

Congo's Main Rebel Group Losing Support
Rebels of the Rally for Congolese Democracy never had much popular support and are seen by many in the Democratic Republic of Congo as stooges of neighboring Rwanda. There's escalating resentment toward this rebel group as it faces the battle of its life to hold on to a third of the mineral-rich former Zaire as part of a drawn-out conflict there, according to Reuters. Congo's war began in 1998 when Rwanda and Uganda invaded to support rebels fighting the government. Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia sent troops to back the government.

Other main combatants in a many-sided war have inched toward peace to try to end a conflict that has cost an estimated two million lives, mostly through starvation and lack of health care. But RCD has suffered a series of setbacks. The rebels were excluded from a power-sharing deal between the government and several Ugandan-backed factions in April.

Then last month Rwanda signed an accord with the government that calls for the withdrawal of some 20,000 Rwandan troops from Congo within months – potentially abandoning RCD without the military backing that made it strong. But for those living in eastern Congo, invaded by Rwanda and Uganda, the hope brought by the peace deal is moderated by fear of what their weakened rebel rulers might do to keep their grip. "The RCD is like a candle that's melting down and soon there may be no more wax for it to burn," a human rights worker said.

RCD has always said it's fighting to establish democracy in Africa's third largest country. Many Congolese, though, suspect it may have more to do with the country's huge mineral riches; gold, diamonds, timber and coltan (used in laptop computers, mobile phones and stealth bombers). All sides have been accused of looting. The 12 diamonds gleaming from the gold ring of one senior rebel commander suggest RCD's leaders are not struggling in poverty while they remain in charge, observed Reuters.

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