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LIBERIA: Former rebel fighters dig for diamonds

Boaki spent Liberia's civil war fighting for the rebels. Now it's peacetime, the former gunman spends his days in muddy creek waters, illicitly searching for diamonds, the gems that helped fuel the 14-year conflict.

UN sanctions banning the export of diamonds have been in place since 2001, but exploring for the glittering stones is not illegal so long as you have the requisite permit from the government.

However, practically all the miners interviewed by an IRIN correspondent in a diamond-rich area of Gbarpolu County, some 200 km northwest of the capital Monrovia, said their operations were illicit.

"Every time we see UN helicopters patrolling the sky, we leave the diamond creek," said Boaki, a young man in his 20s who used to fight for the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel movement.

Now he looks for diamonds near the village of Weasua, a place so famed for the gemstones that Liberia's ramshackle national airline, which boasts a couple of rickety Russian planes, is named after it.

"We know that there are sanctions on diamonds and it always comes to our mind that the UN soldiers in the helicopters are trying to photograph us or attempting to arrest us," Boaki said, pulling on his tattered camouflage T-shirt.

Experts say small-scale diamond mining activity has mushroomed in Liberia in recent months, particularly in the northern areas that border Guinea, Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire.

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