ABIDJAN (Reuters) - The United Nations should ease its embargo on diamonds from Ivory Coast to allow expert- monitored selling points that would stop miners selling them on the black market as happens now, a campaign group said.
But Global Witness, a London-based advocacy group supporting the Kimberly Process to stop diamonds funding wars, said the lifting of the embargo would be unwise unless it could be guaranteed New Forces rebels did not profit from the diamonds.
The U.N. Security Council slapped an embargo on Ivorian diamonds in 2005 to prevent "blood diamonds" fuelling a conflict that broke out in 2002 and has left the top cocoa grower divided.
Ivory Coast's diamond mines are all in rebel-held zones.
Elections meant to end the stalemate and reunite the country are five years overdue, but currently scheduled for Oct. 31.
But Michel Yoboue, head of the Abidjan-based Extractive Industries Advocacy Research Group (GRPIE), which works for greater transparency in mining, said thousands of miners continued to dig for stones, which they often sold on to smugglers for a fraction of the market price.
"We are calling on the U.N. Security Council to be flexible with the embargo in order to ease the suffering of miners, prevent smuggling and encourage flows of money into the country," he said over the weekend.
"The embargo is not stopping the extraction and when they mine and there is no buying centre, the miners are forced to sell through illegal smugglers," he added, saying most of the stones were exported through neighbouring Guinea and Mali.
Before Ivory Coast's war and subsequent political stalemate, the country produced about 300,000 carats of diamond worth $25 million, but Yoboue said more mines had been opened since then.
He said thousands of miners were active in Ivory Coast and they were forced to sell stones for as little as 20 percent of the market price due to the embargo.
The embargo comes on top of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, which was set up in 2003 to try and prevent the trade in diamonds sold to fund conflicts.
Campaigners last year warned the scheme was failing.
The U.N. panel of expert monitoring the embargo on Ivory Coast has also said that the trade in diamonds is flourishing and access to the stones, which could be used to buy arms, was as important as ever for armed groups.
But, pointing out that there is no actual fighting going on, Yoboue backed a plan to open two purchases offices in Seguela and Tortiya, two main diamond regions, which would be linked to an office in Abidjan and monitored by experts from the government, U.N. and the Kimberly Process.
"This would allow the government to have real figures on the current diamond production, improve traceability and collect money," Yoboue added.
Annie Dunneback, a campaigner for Global Witness, said such a move could fund the rebels if not done properly.
"Our information indicates that the Force Nouvelles (New Forces) are benefitting from the sale of these diamonds and the country ... there are revenue streams going into (their) coffers," she said.
"If the gov't could credibly demonstrate that they have been able to set up diamond buying centres in the vicinity of the diamond mines ... under government control, then it would be reasonable, but ... they don't have full control over those areas."
(Additional reporting by Tim Cocks; Writing by David Lewis)
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