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Illicit diamond flows stifle mining industry

Billy Ntaote and Keiso Mohloboli

Lesotho’s fast-growing diamond mining industry could have lost hundreds of millions in revenue to smugglers believed to have been operating under the radar between the country and South Africa for a long time.

Past weeks arrest of the mining minister’s personal secretary, Refiloe Mokone, by the South African Police Service’s Directorate of Priority Crimes Investigations (Hawks) has not only exposed porous borders between the two countries, but more significantly that the smuggling occurs right under the nose of government and possibly perpetratedby the authorities themselves.

The MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism has learnt from privy sources that an informant who directed the Hawks into arresting Mokone on charges of smuggling diamonds in Ladybrand, South Africa, did that following a trail of suspicious occurrences of the precious stones being smuggled out of Lesotho.

The parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, in August this year, hinted on allegations of smuggling of Lesotho’s diamonds. The portfolio committee had received the information from government sourcesand four months later the minister’s aide is arrested on same.

The Mining Minister Keketso Sello has distanced himself from the matter saying he knew nothing about the alleged diamonds found in Mokone’s possession.

Mokone, 42, has been remanded in custody together with her co-accused Bokang Nthatisi, 25, Bakoena Mokoena, 24, and Mandla Ntsibande, 26. They are expected to appear again before the Ladybrand Magistrate’s Court tomorrow, on December 19 for bail application.

The quartet was traveling in a 4×4 Toyota Hilux Sporting Utility Vehicle driven by Mokone at the time of arrest on December 3.a The vehicle, bearing registration number MZ 591, was allocated to MinisterSello by the government for official use.

In a recent interview, Sello told the Centre that security at diamond mines was of highest level “and there can never be any smuggling of diamonds”.

The Minister had further assured the Centre that all diamonds are recorded by both the mining companies and independently by the ministry’s legally authorised officials at the sorting stages within the secure mine areas.

The Centre, last week heard how the HAWKS with the help of an informant seized the vehicle in Ladybrand who knew graphical details about the smuggling of those diamonds.

“The HAWKS were alerted and then followed the vehicle from the Maseru border gate until it was parked at a restaurant in town of Ladybrand.

“The unpolished and uncut diamonds were put in a handbag of one of the women in that vehicle,” the Centre learned from sources who refused to be named for fear of reprisals.

The sources told the centre that from what investigators gathered from the interrogation after the arrest, the syndicate smuggling diamonds from the Ministry of Mining in Lesotho is much bigger.

The sources said they suspect the informant could have been part of the syndicate before.

“From what I gathered from the interrogation, I suspect that the informant used to be part of the group and decided to report the arrested quartet because maybe they side-lined him this time,” said one of the sources.

The Centre learned the informant who led the Organised Crime officers to nab the suspects seemed to have an unclear vendetta that led to the smugglers being exposed.

Mokone and her smuggling ring were in possession of two unpolished and uncut Lesotho diamonds worth one hundred thousand Maloti (M100, 000.00) when they were arrested by the HAWKS on December 3.

The Centre’s crew saw the vehicle bearing registration number MZ 591 that Mokone was driving belonging to the Mining Minister Sello when she was arrested parked at a Ladybrand police’s VehicleTheft Unit.

In a statement, the HAWKS said the quartet was remanded in custody on December 04, 2018 and is still in police custody in Kroonstad police cell.

The statement further said the suspects will appear before the Ladybrand Magistrate Court on December 19, for a bail application.

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