United Nations investigators are examining allegations that flights used by a UN contractor have been smuggling diamonds out of Congo.
The charges could be embarrassing for the UN, which has energetically condemned the plunder of the mineral-rich country by foreign powers involved in its protracted war.
UN officials flew to the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, last week to investigate the allegations, which surfaced during an inquiry into billing practices by the contractor, ES-KO, which is registered in Monte Carlo.
Local officials in the UN mission in Congo allege that charter flights used by ES-KO, which they had engaged to provide and ship rations for their operations, may have had, on their return trips, shipments "of questionable content as referred to in the report of the UN Panel of Experts on illegal exploitation of DRC natural resources". UN sources confirm that this means diamonds but such is the sensitivity of the issue that no one wants to put the word into print.
ES-KO, which derives most of its revenues from UN catering and supply operations, is a commercial company owned by two Italian brothers, Ennio and Enzo Zanotti. It has been in the news before, in the 1980s, when it was linked with allegations of shipping toxic waste to west Africa. Those claims were not proved.
The current allegations arose out of an investigation into how ES-KP billed the UN for the services of a local handling company. In the course of looking into how the shipments were dealt with, UN officials had their suspicions aroused when they discovered that the aircraft involved, using a UN call sign, was also carrying other goods for other parties including the alleged "shipments of questionable content".
The first inquiry into billing practices focused on almost $25,000 (£17,000) in air royalties allegedly paid to the government of Congo. The UN had, as usual, negotiated a tax-free deal for its shipments with the DRC, and local officials used this and the fact that ES-KO could only produce a hand-written receipt for the alleged taxes to refuse payment.
UN legal advisers called for the investigation by UN headquarters into the company and its contract "on the legitimacy of using such a carrier in the prevailing political situation".
The issue is sensitive because the UN has inveighed at all levels against diamond smuggling. It is a major source of finance for the bloody conflicts across central Africa, which the UN has been called upon to intervene in time and again. The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, has personally spoken out strongly against the illicit trade, which stretches from Sierra Leone in west Africa, to Congo, Angola and Mozambique. The UN's five-man panel of experts concluded in July last year that the exploitation of the natural resources of the Democratic Republic of Congo by foreign armies had become systematic and systemic. The experts urged the UN Security Council to declare a temporary embargo on the export of diamonds and other minerals from or to Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, "until those countries' involvement in the exploitation of the natural resources of the Democratic Republic of Congo is made clear".Reuse content