(16 October 1999; The Washington Post)
By James Rupert — Washington Post Foreign Service
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone – When Sierra Leone’s lone combat helicopter blew an engine one day last year, it meant disaster for the government. The aging Soviet-built gunship had been the government’s most effective weapon against a rebel army that was marching on the capital, burning villages and killing and mutilating civilians.
Officials scrambled to repair or replace the helicopter. But rather than relying on conventional arms dealers, they took bids from mining companies, gem brokers and mercenaries, most of whom held or wanted access to Sierra Leone’s diamond fields. The government finally agreed to buy $3.8 million worth of engines, parts and ammunition through a firm set up by Zeev Morgenstern, an executive with Belgium-based Rex Diamond Mining Corp.
In the end, the parts proved unsuitable, and the helicopter stayed grounded. The rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) seized Freetown, killing thousands of residents and – in their signature atrocity – amputating the arms or hands of hundreds of civilians.
Although the government later retook the capital, the rebels’ success forced the government this summer to accept a deal to share power. Though controversial, the peace agreement has drawn enough U.S. and other international support that Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright will visit here Monday on the first day of an African tour.
The key role of mining interests in the fighting was nothing new in Sierra Leone. The eight-year conflict that has shattered this country and brutalized its 5 million people has been fueled by foreigners’ hunger for diamonds. Rival mining companies, security firms and mercenaries – from Africa, Europe, Israel and the former Soviet Union – have poured weapons, trainers and fighters into Sierra Leone, backing the government or the rebels in a bid to win cheap access to diamond fields.
Across Africa, foreign firms are fueling wars for natural resources that in some ways recall the 19th-century “scramble for Africa” by European imperial powers. Since the end of the Cold War – when major countries pulled back from African conflicts – oil and mining companies, security firms and mercenaries have filled the void. They have provided arms and expertise for civil wars in Angola, Congo, Liberia and here.
These conflicts are singularly brutal, scholars say, because many of their sponsors are outsiders with little motive to limit destruction. The superpower patrons of Cold War conflicts “did not allow the wholesale ripping up of the economy, the use of children as soldiers, the attacks on relief groups” that have become the norm in Sierra Leone and elsewhere, said Herbert Howe, a Georgetown University political scientist.
In Sierra Leone, both the government and the RUF have attracted military backers by offering payment in diamonds or diamond-mining rights. The fortunes to be made from such ventures have prolonged and escalated the war, analysts say. According to documents and African, U.S. and European sources, the spoils have also encouraged the involvement in the conflict of a number of prominent foreigners:
Charles Taylor, president of Sierra Leone’s neighbor, Liberia, and his son, Charles Jr., have helped the RUF obtain foreign arms and military training, said African and Western military intelligence sources and Liberians. An American with military experience described watching at Liberia’s main airport as members of one of the president’s security forces supervised the unloading of two truckloads of automatic rifles and ammunition that he said were then sent to the Sierra Leonean border.
A Liberian government spokesman denied that Taylor or his son had provided weapons to the RUF, or had interests in Sierra Leone’s diamond trade. International diamond merchants and other sources say that by helping the RUF control Sierra Leone’s diamond fields, Liberia can divert more Sierra Leonean diamonds through its territory on the way to world markets, reaping part of the profits.
A retired South African army intelligence officer, Fred Rindle, has provided training to Taylor’s forces and to the RUF, African and Western military sources say. Rindle, who also helped arm UNITA rebels in Angola, is also exporting diamonds from Liberia, according to other African and Western sources.
A Ukrainian businessman, Leonid Minin, has supplied arms to Taylor and the RUF, according to a senior officer of the West African peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone. Minin, who is well connected to government officials in Ukraine, operates a timber company in Liberia that also is dealing in arms and diamonds, according to the officer and Liberian sources.
Morgenstern, the Rex Mining executive, and the company’s Antwerp-based president, Serge Muller, set up a company to sell weapons to the Sierra Leonean government, which has granted Rex several diamond mining leases. In separate interviews, Morgenstern and Muller said the arms deals were unrelated to Rex’s mining activities.
A retired Israeli army officer, Yair Klein, has provided military material and training in Liberia and Sierra Leone since 1996, according to West African sources and the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth. Israel convicted Klein in 1991 of illegally selling arms and training to Colombian groups that the Colombian government says were fronts for the Medellin cocaine cartel.
Klein competed with Morgenstern last year for a helicopter contract in Sierra Leone while seeking mining rights, according to Yedioth Aharonoth. Sierra Leone arrested Klein last January and is trying him for alleged fraud in the proposed purchase of a helicopter from Belarus.
Mired in Corruption
Sierra Leone’s war began in 1991 when a dismissed army corporal, Foday Sankoh, formed the RUF and led a rebellion against the authoritarian rule that had mired this country in poverty and corruption. The RUF briefly attracted students to its cause, but soon alienated most Sierra Leoneans with brutal tactics.
The role of outsiders in the fighting began in earnest in 1995, when Sierra Leone’s then-military government hired a South African firm, Executive Outcomes. The company effectively was a military battalion for hire – one of the most prominent of a new generation of private military corporations. It brought in a few hundred fighters, most of whom were veterans of the South African army, who drove the RUF out of the major diamond fields and destroyed some of their key jungle strongholds.
While Sierra Leone paid Executive Outcomes to fight the rebels, the government also awarded diamond-mining rights to Branch Energy, a firm linked to Executive Outcomes through cross-ownership among a group of former South African and British military officers. While Executive Outcomes provided security in Kono, the country’s richest diamond region, Branch Energy mined there.
Executive Outcomes’ victory allowed Sierra Leone to hold elections in March 1996 for a civilian government whose president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, signed a peace accord with the weakened RUF in late 1996. Under the deal, Kabbah ended Executive Outcomes’ contract in 1997.
Less than four months later, Sierra Leonean soldiers angry about their poor pay ousted Kabbah in a coup and invited the RUF to join them in power. The army and the RUF conducted a nine-month reign of terror in which soldiers and guerrillas roamed Freetown at night, robbing and raping residents in what they called “Operation Pay Yourself.”
Last year, Kabbah turned again to outsiders – chiefly an old ally, Nigeria. Under the flag of a West African peacekeeping force, ECOMOG, Nigeria sent thousands of troops to a February 1998 offensive to oust the junta and return Kabbah to power.
Kabbah hired a British military company, Sandline International, to back the Nigerians, according to a report in July by a British government investigator. A Thai businessman, Rakesh Saxena, agreed to pay $10 million to finance Sandline’s role, in exchange for mining rights in Sierra Leone. But Saxena was on the run in Canada from a Thai arrest warrant, and he delivered only $1.5 million for Sandline before he was arrested in Canada, said the investigator, Sir Thomas Legg.
With logistical help from Sandline, Nigerian troops and pro-Kabbah militias forced the RUF out of Freetown in February, 1998, but failed to win back all of the Kono diamond region. For months, both armies dug diamonds furiously, said Nigerian and Sierra Leonean sources.
Despite a government order suspending all mining, Nigerian officers in Kono quickly put local diamond diggers back to work under their control. Nigerian soldiers complained that officers were neglecting the troops, spending their time and ECOMOG money to run mining operations.
Reports of Rearming
While some Nigerian officers mined gems, Nigerian military intelligence monitored signs that the RUF was rearming. The Nigerians and a Western intelligence agency tracked aircraft that they said had been seen transferring crates of arms at West African airfields. Many flights came from Eastern Europe, most often making stops at Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, said Maj. Gen. Felix Mujakperuo, ECOMOG’s commander until this summer. From Ouagadougou, a few planes flew directly to airstrips in rebel-held zones of Sierra Leone, but most flew to Liberia’s Robertsfield International Airport.
U.S. officials have said they have evidence that Liberia and Burkina Faso have been helping arm the rebels. The Washington Post obtained the registration numbers of five aircraft that ECOMOG said had carried weapons to the RUF. When the numbers were checked against an international registry of commercial aircraft compiled by Airclaims Ltd., a private firm, the registration of one of the planes matched that of a Boeing 727 owned by the government of Burkina Faso.
The RUF denies receiving any significant armament from abroad. It gets nearly all its weapons by capturing them from government forces, said RUF spokesman Omrie Golley.
In March 1999, Mujakperuo said, Ukrainian-operated aircraft shipped arms for the RUF via Ouagadougou airport’s VIP terminal. Burkina Faso has denied accusations, including some from U.S. officials, that it has aided the RUF.
Two military intelligence agencies reported intercepting communications from RUF commanders to Liberian officials confirming the receipt of arms or other assistance. A senior officer of ECOMOG said a logging company run by Minin, the Ukrainian, has trucked arms to the RUF under the cover of its timber operations near the Sierra Leonean border. Minin’s Monrovia firm – Exotic Tropical Timber Enterprise – exports logs, but “their real business is diamonds and arms supply,” he said.
A company official did not return phone calls asking about its operations. Minin, who also operates a firm in Zug, Switzerland, did not return a call to his office there.
The U.S. government estimates that smuggled African diamonds represent 10 percent to 15 percent of the global diamond trade, a State Department official said, a share worth $5 billion to $7 billion per year at current prices. Sierra Leone probably produces $300 million to $450 million worth of diamonds each year, said Caspar Fithen, a specialist on Africa and diamonds at Oxford Analytica, a British research firm.
Sierra Leone exports “a very, very marginal part” of its diamonds through its official channels, said Lawrence Ndola Myers, acting director of Sierra Leone’s Government Gold and Diamond Office. Myers and diamond industry analysts in Europe said most of Sierra Leone’s diamonds are smuggled through Liberia, which is exporting vastly more stones than its mines could be producing, as well as through neighboring Guinea.
Liberian officials, including Mines Minister Jenkins Dunbar, did not deny that RUF-produced diamonds might be exported through Liberia, but said his government had no figures on Liberian diamond production or exports.
In Belgium, the world’s largest market for rough diamonds, a total of 8.3 million carats of stones, worth $601 million, were imported from Liberia during 1997 and 1998, according to the Antwerp High Diamond Council. But the U.S. Geological Survey, which monitors global mining, estimates that – based on the known state of Liberia’s diamond fields and mining industry – the country can produce only about 60,000 carats per year of rough gemstones, said Philip Mobbs, an Africa specialist at the agency. In Antwerp, diamond buyers routinely “are labeling Sierra Leonean stones as Liberian,” said Chris Gordon, a diamond industry analyst in London.
African and Western military sources say Liberia’s Taylor or his son have recruited business associates to help the RUF. In the late summer of 1998, Charles Taylor Jr., who helps run his father’s security apparatus, asked foreign military trainers working for him to help with a “cross-border project,” said a Western military specialist who asked not to be named. “Chuckie was indirect . . . [but] he made it clear that the project was to help the rebels in Sierra Leone,” the source said.
President Taylor’s press secretary, Reginald Goodridge, repeated government denials that Liberia has helped the rebels, saying “this issue has been put to rest. We’ve cooperated in bringing the [Sierra Leonean] sides together.”
When the RUF’s offensive began in late 1998, the rebels used “textbook South African army” tactics, said a South African military source. Several African and Western military sources said they believe this was the result of training by Rindle, the former intelligence officer.
Under apartheid, Rindle served as a South African army liaison officer to the Angolan rebel movement, UNITA. After South Africa ended its support of UNITA, Rindle continued to help them on his own, getting paid in diamonds, according to South African and U.S. intelligence sources.
Since at least 1998, Rindle has spent a lot of time in Liberia, with his transportation and hotel accommodations arranged by Charles Taylor Jr., according to sources in Monrovia. “On some trips, he has come with teams of South African soldiers and gone with them into the bush,” said one source.
In July, Rindle, a quiet, dapper man, spent several days at Monrovia’s most exclusive hotel with a leading South African geologist, Morris J. Viljoen of the University of Witwatersrand, and two other South Africans. They were heard discussing plans for a diamond-mining deal with Charles Taylor Jr. When Rindle subsequently was asked one morning for an interview there, he said he was in the country on mining business. He agreed to a meeting that evening, but instead checked out of the hotel.
No Liberian official would discuss Rindle or his relationship with Charles Taylor Jr.
Late last fall, the RUF launched what became its most brutal offensive of the war. It seized full control of Kono, surprising ill-prepared Nigerians. Defeated at Kono, ECOMOG collapsed and the rebels reached Freetown. In July, the government signed a deal with the RUF that gives the rebels seats in the cabinet and amnesty for crimes committed during the war. It also places Sankoh, the rebel leader, in charge of a commission that will help decide who will get to mine Sierra Leone’s minerals, including diamonds.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company