FREETOWN • A pastor working in the mines of eastern Sierra Leone has unearthed a 706-carat diamond, a discovery that experts said could be the 10th-largest stone ever found.
The huge rock was extracted by Mr Emmanuel Momoh, one of the thousands who seek their fortunes in the informal mining sector that dominates the diamond-rich Kono region.
As a self-employed miner with a valid government permit, Mr Momoh is entitled to the proceeds of any future sale, except for 4 per cent that the government takes for valuation and export, according to the law, as well as an undetermined level of income tax.
Mines Minister Minkailu Mansaray said the government's stake would be used to fund development projects nationwide.
The diamond was presented to President Ernest Bai Koroma late on Wednesday before being locked in Freetown's central bank vault. It awaits an official valuation under the Kimberley Process, which certifies diamonds as "conflict-free".
It will then be sold in Sierra Leone in a transparent bidding process, a government statement said.
The statement thanked the chief of the Tankoro area, where the stone was found, for not smuggling it out of the country.
Diamonds fuelled a decade-long civil war that ended in 2002, in which 50,000 people were killed. Rebels forced civilians to mine the stones and bought weapons with the proceeds, leading to the term "blood diamonds".
"He (President Koroma) underscored the importance of selling such a diamond here as it will clearly give the owners what is due them and benefit the country as a whole," the government statement said.
But Freetown residents are sceptical that they will see any gain from the sale. "Previous diamonds have not benefited the people and I wonder how this new diamond will make a difference," said Ms Jeneba Kallon, a civil servant.
Another resident, Mr Mohamed Kamara, said Sierra Leone's diamonds were "more of a curse than a blessing", citing the high rate of poverty and underdevelopment where the minerals are found.
Sierra Leone's gross national income per capita stood at US$620 (S$870) in 2015, according to World Bank data.
The United Nations lifted a ban on diamond exports from Sierra Leone in 2003.
The International Monetary Fund expects the country to export US$113 million worth of diamonds this year, although the sector remains plagued by smuggling.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS