Government probes unrest in diamond-mining area

[Sierra Leone] Alluvial diggers work in diamond pits in Sierra Leone. [Date picture taken: 08/05/2006]
Diggers working in diamond pits in eastern Sierra Leone (Victoria Averill/IRIN)

The Sierra Leone government has called for an inquiry into unrest over diamond-mining operations in the east of the country after residents were killed in protests last week.

The government has ordered operations suspended at Koidu Holdings Mining Company’s site in the town of Koidu in Kono district, according to a 17 December statement. A 10pm to 6am curfew remains in effect in the area.

Youths stormed the Koidu Holdings site on 13 December, setting fire to surrounding bushes, company administrator Sadiq Sillah told IRIN.

Residents were protesting the mining operations’ impact on living conditions, saying the company has failed to compensate affected families.

Koidu residents said police shot and killed protesters but police officials say demonstrators were armed and police acted in self-defence.

“Four of our colleagues have been killed by the police,” Samuel Ngaujah, spokesperson for a group called Affected Property Owners, told IRIN.

The government says only two people were killed in the violence.

Local police commander Joseph Kabia told IRIN protesters were carrying guns. “My men defended themselves.”

Members of parliament who visited Kono following the uprising issued a statement on 17 December condemning what they called “heavy handed action taken” in quelling the unrest. “We believe it was a peaceful demonstration which could have been settled through negotiations,” the seven MPs said in the statement, but made no specific reference to police.

The government inquiry will look into events leading to the 13 December demonstration and “the causes of discontent” between Koidu Holdings and the community, the government statement said.

Property owners say Koidu Holdings has not met promises to help in the resettlement of residents displaced by its operations. The group in November sent a proposed resolution to Koidu Holdings and the government in November, posing an “ultimatum” of one month for their grievances to be addressed, Ngaujah said.

Koidu Holdings worker Sillah told IRIN the company has built 70 of 350 homes it was to build, saying the rainy season set back its work.

A civil society group, Network Movement for Justice and Development, says Koidu Holdings has reneged on agreements to provide better living conditions for people affected by their operations.

NMJD director, Abu Brima, is calling on the new government of President Ernest Koroma to renegotiate the terms of the company’s lease “so as to stop the exploitation of the people and environmental degradation of the area”, he told IRIN.

Rich in diamonds, Kono district lacks piped water, electricity and good roads, citizens say. Residents have long denounced what they call exploitation by diamond seekers.

The government statement says a report on the inquiry is expected in three weeks.

wb/np/nr

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