Jewellers are urged to stop selling rubies mined in Burma

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Rubies, the red gems that have, for generations, symbolised true passion between lovers, could disappear from sale in Britain as part of the international crack down on the Burmese junta.

According to campaigners,95 per cent of all rubies that eventually make their way on to the counters of some of the world's most prestigious jewellers, where they sell for up to £500,000, are mined in Burma.

It is claimed that the trade, most of which takes place through third-party countries, has helped line the pockets of the junta's political elite and preserve it in power. But as international condemnation over the treatment of Buddhist monks and other demonstrators who took part in the recent anti-government uprising in which 10 people died, EU ministers and the US have moved to close the loophole.

Under plans being finalised in Brussels, UK companies operating in the EU must stop importing luxury goods from Burma such as precious metals, wood products and gems including the so-called blood rubies.

The International Trade Union Confederation has written to leading retailers including Harrods demanding they stop stocking the stones although all denied buying rubies from Burma.

A spokeswoman for the Knightsbridge store said it was in "no doubt" the individual boutiques and brands operating there would comply with the new regulations. However, she added: "Harrods feels that it is up to the individual to make his or her buying decisions based on their own philosophy and beliefs."

Opponents of the Burmese regime said the mining industry there is unregulated with miners forced to work in often dangerous and atrocious conditions. A complete lack of environmental safeguards mean that mines can often cause major pollution to local drinking water supplies, said Mark Farmaner, acting director of the Burma Campaign UK which has been calling for these types of sanctions for more than a decade.

"These are very smart, smart sanctions, very well targeted. Just like in South Africa it was not until the business community was targeted that apartheid finally started to collapse," he said.

Mr Farmaner said that mining concessions had been handed out to the country's elites in order to shore up their support for the brutal dictatorship responsible for the detention of some 2,500 people following the recent spate of protests sparked by the deteriorating economy.

"There is no way of buying rubies unless they are illegally smuggled out of Burma or without the regime profiting. At some point any ruby will have been in the hands of the regime," he said.

Gemstones are Burma's third-most lucrative export after timber and natural gas. While some retailers, most notably Tiffany & Co, refuse to stock "blood" diamonds there are legitimate problems for jewellers as many of the stones are antique and may well predate the current regime, which has been in power since 1988.

Yesterday, the International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander said the international community would support Burma with "aid, trade and debt relief" if it took concrete steps towards democracy.

Speaking after hosting a meeting of the world's development ministers in Washington DC, he said: "At this meeting, we discussed the need for sufficient concrete and verifiable steps to be made along the path to reconciliation and reform in Burma.

"But we also had a preliminary discussion of how the international community would use aid, trade and debt relief to support any economic reconstruction in Burma if these steps were taken."