Spanish police have arrested an American man on suspicion of having participated in the trafficking of "blood diamonds" during the civil war in Sierra Leone. Michel Desaedeleer, a citizen of the US and Belgium, was detained at Malaga airport in southern Spain on 28 August under a European arrest warrant issued by Belgian authorities, just as he was about to board a flight to the US.

Desaedeleer, 64, is suspected of forcing enslaved civilians to mine for diamonds and illegally trafficking them during Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war, AFP reported. "He led the extraction work in the fields, at least in the weeks between December 1999 and January 2000," the agency quoted a Spanish police statement as saying.

During the war, Sierra Leonean rebels used civilians as slaves to mine in diamond pits. The proceeds of the forced labour were sent to neighbouring Liberia, where they were used by the country's former president Charles Taylor to finance the rebels.

War crimes' victims association Civitas Maxima said on 30 August that Desaedeleer was suspected of participating in the conflict diamond trade in the eastern district of Kono between 1999 and 2001. It is the first time a businessman has been arrested for his alleged involvement in the pillaging of conflict diamonds and enslavement of civilians, according to the Geneva-based organisation.

"This is another significant step forward in our collective efforts at ensuring accountability for the crimes that occurred during the conflict in Sierra Leone. No one should be allowed to get away with participating in serious offences such as enslaving people and forcing them to mine for diamonds," said Ibrahim Tommy, executive director of the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law in Freetown, Sierra Leone. "This case will also help to shed light on the otherwise discreet drivers of the infamous 'blood diamond' trade in Sierra Leone".

Alain Werner, director of Civitas Maxima, added: "This is a landmark case, the first of its kind, and it will help to raise awareness of the pivotal role played by financial actors in the trade of mineral resources that fuel armed conflicts in Africa and elsewhere." Sierra Leone's civil war, noted for its brutality and the use of child soldiers, left more than 100,000 people dead, although estimates vary widely.