Source AP ©

Liberia opens diamond offices

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf opened 10 diamond screening and evaluation offices across Liberia, marking the first step toward restarting the industry in the war-decimated West African country following the removal of a six-year ban by the United Nations.

At a ceremony in the northwestern town of Tubmanburg, Sirleaf urged Liberians to work to ensure that the sanctions stay lifted by embracing an international certification system aimed at guaranteeing the origin of stones, weeding out so-called "blood diamonds" used to fund conflict.

Wracked by more than a decade of fighting and insecurity that ended only in 2003 with the ouster of warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, Liberia was one of the countries whose unregulated diamond industries prompted the creation of the international certification scheme, called the Kimberley Process.

Both Taylor's forces and rebel fighters have been charged with looting Liberia's small diamond reserves to buy arms, along with smuggling stones in from the more expansive diamond fields of neighboring Sierra Leone for export through Liberian ports.

The United Nations lifted the ban on Liberian diamonds three days ago, citing steps taken by the country to ensure regulation.

The regional diamond offices will be responsible for recording any diamonds purchased under the new scheme, and for taxing the transactions.

"The sanctions were lifted under certain conditions. We have to ensure that we meet those conditions if those sanctions will remain lifted or we run the risk of having them re-imposed," Sirleaf said in a speech broadcast on Liberian radio. She has made the lifting of sanctions a major goal of her administration since taking office in January 2006.

Liberias diamonds came under United Nations sanctions in May 2001, when Taylor's government was accused of using diamond revenues to fuel war in Sierra Leone. Taylor, who went into exile in August 2003, faces war crimes charges stemming from his alleged backing of Sierra Leone's rebels who terrorized victims by chopping off their arms, legs, ears and lips.

An internal moratorium on diamond mining and exports is still in place, said Kpandeh Fayia, a deputy minister at Liberia's Ministry of Land, Mines and Energy and a point person for the country's Kimberley push.

Fayia said Liberia is waiting for notice by the Kimberley review board that they are now considered "Kimberley-compliant" before restarting operations.