Watchdog backs end to Ivory Coast 'blood diamond' ban

Global diamond watchdog the Kimberley Process gave its backing on Friday to the lifting of a 2005 UN embargo on diamond sales from Ivory Coast.

Diamond producers, buyers and rights groups wrapped up their annual assembly acknowledging that Ivory Coast had fulfilled "minimum requirements" under the group's certification system, which is designed to stop the export of conflict or "blood" diamonds.

The move clears a major hurdle for the west African country to resume trading its diamonds on the international market.

The UN banned Ivorian diamonds to prevent the money from sales being used to fund arms purchases during a civil war, which began in 2002.

The world body first imposed an arms embargo in 2004 and a ban on trading in rough diamonds was added the following year as a rebellion divided the country.

The holding of free, fair and transparent presidential elections in line with the international standards was one of the conditions for reviewing the ban.

President Alassane Ouattara won fiercely contested polls in 2010.

Ivory Coast, which is the world's leading cocoa producer, is the only country still with a UN Security Council ban on sales of its stones.

Satisfied with the progress made so far, the Kimberley Process said it now "encouraged" Ivory Coast to come up with "a transition strategy and roadmap towards the lifting of the UN embargo."

European Union countries form the world's largest diamond market, and the body said it welcomed the progress made by Ivory Coast to attain compliance with the Kimberley Process certification rules.

The Kimberley Process was created 10 years ago to prevent illegally mined and so-called "blood diamonds" from filtering into the market to fuel conflicts.

Along with the decision on Ivory Coast Friday, the organisation said conditions in the Central African Republic were not yet ripe for a review of a decision it took five months ago.

"The security conditions in CAR are not currently conducive for organising a review mission and do not provide guarantees for preserving the integrity of the chain of custody of diamonds," it said.

The impoverished central African nation was suspended on May 23 following the ouster of president Francois Bozize in a coup led by a rebel coalition in March.

The putsch brought the CAR's first Muslim leader, President Michel Djotodia, to power.

This has unleashed sectarian violence pitting the mainly Muslim former rebels who seized power in March against militia groups set up to protect Christian communities, which make up about 80 percent of the population.

The unrest has displaced almost 400,000 of the country's estimated 4.6 million people, left 2.3 million in need of assistance and some 1.1 million scrambling to find food, according to the latest UN figures.

Diamonds contribute significantly to the country's export earnings and support nearly a quarter of the people in the country.

"We cannot pay two months' wages without the revenue from diamonds," Maxime Ange Kazagui, a Kimberley Process delegate originally from the Central African Republic, told AFP at the Johannesburg meeting.

In global terms, the CAR is a relatively small producer of diamonds, but the quality of its precious stones is highly rated.