NDELE, Central African Republic (AP) -- Armed with rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikov rifles, Seleka rebels who ousted Central African Republic's president six weeks ago are solidifying their control over the country's lucrative diamond industry and have even been selling some of the stones, witnesses here in the isolated and violent north say.
Rebels have for several years controlled some of the diamond-producing areas in the north, but with the overthrow of President Francois Bozize in March the Seleka rebel coalition now is the government, posing one of the greatest challenges in years to international efforts to stem the trade of "blood diamonds."
Fighters are blocking off diamond-producing areas, residents and local officials told an Associated Press reporter who recently visited Ndele, a rebel-controlled town in northern Central African Republic.
Central African Republic's new government insists that it intends to fully comply with the Kimberley Process, which aims to curb the trade in blood diamonds whose profits have driven some of the bloodiest conflicts in Africa over the past 20 years. It went into effect in 2003 in the aftermath of the brutal West African civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia where diamonds were used by armed groups to fund the conflicts.
"We remain in the Kimberley Process and we respect the principle," said new Information Minister Christophe Gazam Betty.
Newly appointed Minister of Mines Herbert Gontran Djono-Ahaba declined on several occasions to be interviewed on the subject. He is a member of the Seleka alliance, whose fighters have set up checkpoints along the dirt paths leading to mining areas around Ndele.
Seleka rebels are now in control there, say residents who fled the town of Sangba, about 85 kilometers (50 miles) southeast of Ndele.
"The diamond business is now forbidden to anyone who is not with Seleka," said one local official who fled from Sangba. The official refused to be identified because of security concerns.
Even more worrisome, the Seleka members are — according to several people who fled Sangba — being aided by armed fighters from neighboring Sudan known as the Janjaweed, who were accused of committing atrocities against civilians in Darfur. Sudan, whose leader is wanted by the International Criminal Court, is not part of the Kimberley Process. Observers fear many of Central African Republic's illicit diamonds are being funneled into Sudan.
The residents spoke to AP only on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the rebels, who roam through the area's towns in stolen vehicles full of rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons.
The Kimberley Process system for certifying the origin of diamonds is meant to inform customers about where the stones originated. Diamonds are exported with certificates saying they are conflict-free. Countries found to be in violation cannot legally export their gems to the major diamond cutting hubs of Belgium, Israel and India. The case of Central African Republic could become the most significant test in years of the Kimberley Process.
The Kimberley Process has initiated procedures that could lead to a temporary suspension of Central African Republic until a review mission can be sent, Kimberley Process chair Welile Nhlapo told a meeting of the diamond industry in Tel Aviv on Monday.
"The developments in the Central African Republic inform us that there are still situations where conflict diamonds continue to fuel rebel activities to remove elected official governments," Nhlapo told the meeting of the World Diamond Council.
Members in the initiative are set to respond by Friday to the proposed suspension, which would go into effect shortly thereafter if approved by majority, Nhlapo told the AP on the sidelines of the meeting.
The Kimberley Process says conflict diamonds today account for less than 1 percent of the gems worldwide, yet their definition is limited to "rough diamonds used by rebel movements or their allies to finance armed conflicts aimed at undermining legitimate governments."
The Seleka rebels maintain the government they overthrew was in fact not legitimate. Bozize, the president they ousted, himself came to power in 2003 following a rebellion.
The chaos in the north has scared off many foreign diamond traders, but local dealers still purchasing gems confirm that Seleka elements have been deeply entrenched in the industry in recent months. Some were digging for diamonds before the offensive on the capital, Bangui, and they joined the final push to force out Bozize.
"The majority of miners here are in the rebellion so production has been down," said one local diamond buyer a few weeks after Bangui fell to rebel rule. "With the return of Seleka home, it could increase."
The rebels began their advance in December, descending upon a dozen towns across in the north in rapid succession, taking the diamond-producing areas around Sam Ouandja, Ouadda, Ndele, Bamingui and Bria in little over a week's time.
Kimberley Process will likely impose an embargo on Central African Republic's diamonds, said Alan Martin with Partnership Africa Canada, a nonprofit organization that has worked for more than a decade to halt the trade in conflict diamonds and is an official observer with the Kimberley Process.
"The fact that rebels are now in control of the government would mean that they would be the ones taking the proceeds of the diamonds, so that's the problem," he said.
Martin said the Kimberley Process took similar action against Ivory Coast in 2005 amid concerns about the role that rebels were playing in the diamond industry there. The ban remains in effect.
Even if there is an embargo, diamonds could still be smuggled out with sellers attempting to mask their origin so they instead appear to come from a nearby Kimberley Process-compliant country. Already an estimated 30 percent of the country's diamonds leave the country illicitly, according to the International Crisis Group. Martin said some smuggled diamonds are believed to end up in Dubai.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jose Fernandez, who is also taking part in the Tel Aviv conference this week, said the Kimberley Process has "moved slowly" in stemming the flow of conflict diamonds in Central African Republic and that the initiative has been hobbled by its restrictive definition of conflict diamonds, which allows for intervention only in the case of rebel groups attempting to overthrow a government.
"The Central African Republic is an example of why we need to take a more expansive view of what is a conflict diamond," he said. "We feel that we ought to be able to include systematic armed conflict."
Central African Republic's diamonds have been under heightened scrutiny since 2010, when the International Crisis Group detailed abuses by rebels of the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity, or UFDR, seeking to control the diamond mines in the north.
"When a rebel hears that miners have begun to find diamonds, he sometimes works with them and claims a share of the profits," the ICG found. "More often, he forces the miners to hand over diamonds at gunpoint or drives them out and pays others to mine for him."
That same year the United States Embassy in Bangui expressed concern about the role diamonds could be playing in a succession of rebellions across the north.
"We are increasingly suspicious that diamonds are playing a role fueling and funding the conflict," the U.S. Embassy wrote in a January 2010 cable published by WikiLeaks.
Those same rebels who made up the UFDR later joined forces with fighters from other groups to form Seleka in December 2012.
It is unlikely that the Kimberley Process participants will accept the trading of diamonds certified by Seleka, said ICG's Central Africa director Thierry Vircoulon: "I don't believe that the new authorities under (African Union) sanctions are going to be well accepted by the diamond business world."
Associated Press writer Ariel David in Tel Aviv, Israel contributed to this report.