Police sent to Namibia to identify plane crash victims

Diamond Exchange dispatches ZAKA volunteers: "We're competitive, but we're all one family."

plane224.88 (photo credit: Channel 10)
(photo credit: Channel 10)
A police forensics team set out for Namibia on Sunday night to identify the bodies of five Israelis believed to have been killed in a lightplane crash there on Friday. The six-man forensic team is expected to arrive in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, on Monday and join Israeli Ambassador to South Africa Ilan Baruch, who arrived at the scene Saturday. The chartered Cessna-210 plane, apparently carrying five Israelis to a safari in northern Namibia, crashed into a home shortly after takeoff and burst into flames. The plane's pilot was also killed. The five Israelis were reportedly executives of the New York-based Lazare Kaplan International diamond manufacturer, a lawyer representing the company told Reuters on Sunday. Their passports were reportedly found at the site. The names of the five on board have not been released, pending positive identification. Members of Israel's Disaster Victim Identification (ZAKA) flew out to Namibia to identify and bring back the remains of the victims, a mission paid for by the Israel Diamond Exchange, Avi Paz, president of the Exchange, told The Jerusalem Post. "We [the various diamond companies] are fiercely competitive with one another, but we are one family," he said. "Those were five very nice people working there. We're in contact with the families," he added. Contrary to most reports in the Israeli media, the five Israelis were in Namibia, a country which has no diplomatic relations with Israel, for work purposes, Paz said. Eleven Israeli companies are involved in the diamond industry in Namibia. In recent years, a number of southern African states have changed their long-standing practice of selling rough diamonds to any buyer, and have begun insisting that the diamonds be cut and polished locally to create more job opportunities, Paz said. That shift saw an increase in Israeli diamond polishing instructors in Africa, who arrived to share their expertise with local African diamond manufacturers. Although Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba has gone on record as saying he wished to see his country's diamond industry produce "finished products" and create more local jobs, Namibia has been more cautious than its neighbor Botswana in rushing to create local diamond cutting and polishing centers. The country has imposed a moratorium on local polishing factories. Israeli gem producer Lev Leviev, owner of LLD Diamonds, is a major player in Namibia's diamond industry. Since "Namibia doesn't want to polish the diamonds," Paz said, they are sent to other centers for polishing in Congo, Angola, as well as Far East destinations such as India and Vietnam, "where there are very low salaries." The arrangement is far from ideal, he added. "We prefer that that people polish the goods in Israel, but this is the situation," Paz said. "Those countries have decided to polish this year, and we have to make the best of it. The diamonds are polished there and brought over here." They arrive at the Diamond Exchange Center in Ramat Gan, the largest diamond trading hub in the world, where they are sorted, traded and exported. Paz said the Israeli diamond industry experienced a record year of exports in 2007, with $7 billion worth of diamonds exported - $4b. worth of uncut diamonds and $3b. of polished diamonds. Israel's central role in the global diamond industry will be further cemented by an upcoming international conference to be hosted here next month, aimed at closing the major gap between the rising demand for rough diamonds and their supply, an issue Paz said is "one of the biggest problems we have now." Despite the negative tag that tends to be attached to the industry, Israeli companies play a positive role in fostering local African diamond production, a leading industry authority told the Post. According to Martin Rapaport, chairman of the Rapaport Group, which works to promote a fair and competitive global diamond industry, "Overall, Israelis have had a very beneficial impact on southern Africa due to the fact that they're moving their skills and technology to these countries, enabling local diamond manufacturing to take place. "Israelis are teaching Africans how to cut diamonds. And that means jobs in places where jobs are scarce," Rapaport said.