New York - Illegal diamond sales are being used to traffic arms into Ivory Coast, and the UN Security Council members want sanctions to be only gradually relaxed, diplomats said on Wednesday.
A year after President Alassane Ouattara finally won a deadly power battle with his predecessor Laurent Gbagbo, the 15 council members agreed that sanctions can still help the country's "post-conflict recovery", US ambassador Susan Rice said after a special meeting on Ivory Coast.
The UN sanctions experts said in a report to the council that they suspect former Forces Nouvelles rebel commanders of using revenues from the key Seguela and Tortiya diamond districts in the north of the country for arms purchases.
The experts said they believed production has fallen but that up to $23m of illegal diamond sales were being made each year in contravention of a UN ban on diamond exports from the country.
Ivory Coast is now the only country with a UN Security Council ban on sales of its so-called "blood diamonds".
Much of the illegal arms trade - particularly before the fall of Gbagbo - was passing through Guinea and other neighbouring countries, the experts said.
They also expressed concern about the smuggling of arms in the north of the country through Mali.
As well as being the world's leading cocoa producer, Ivory Coast is the leading cashew nut exporter and the report said up to 100,000 tons a year - about one quarter of the country's annual production - is being smuggled to avoid taxes.
The Security Council is to vote next week on an extension of the sanctions regime and diplomats said there were discussions on a text which would allow hope for an easing of the embargos to help the government.
The US ambassador, speaking as the Security Council president for April, said the council was "very much supportive of the significant progress" made since Ouattara took power.
"The members also noted however that challenges remain including violations of the arms embargo and diamond smuggling," Rice added.
"Council members agreed that sanctions can continue to play a role in supporting [Ivory Coast's] post-conflict recovery. Several council members expressed a desire to begin to scale back these measures over time as the security situation improves," she said.