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."