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Zimbabwe gets go-ahead to sell diamonds again

Human rights groups yesterday reacted warily to Zimbabwe being given the green light to resume the sale of diamonds from its Marange fields, where soldiers and policeman deployed by President Robert Mugabe have been accused of committing atrocities.

The Zimbabwean government says it holds a stockpile of over 4 million carats from the controversial fields. Valued at an estimated $1.7bn, the diamonds are worth almost as much as Zimbabwe's 2010 budget and could potentially help a country struggling to boost its economy.

The Kimberley Process – the global body set up to shut down the trade of gems that fund conflict, otherwise known as "blood diamonds" – suspended exports in November.

A last-minute deal was reached late on Thursday after marathon talks at a meeting of the watchdog in Russia. Zimbabwe is allowed to sell two batches of Marange gems on the international markets between now and September. Experts will then visit the country and review its progress, potentially paving the way for a full resumption of exports.

Earlier this week, an irate President Mugabe had threatened to sell the gems without the watchdog's seal of approval, and while activists welcomed the fact that a compromise had been formulated and a crisis averted, they warned of more pitfalls ahead.

"The ball is now in Zimbabwe's court to make good on its promises and act to end one of the most egregious cases of diamond-related violence for many years," said Annie Dunnebacke of Global Witness, the pressure group that investigates the exploitation of natural resources.

Zimbabwean security forces are accused of killing hundreds of the 30,000-plus illegal diggers who descended on the fields outside the eastern town of Mutare during the diamond rush that began in 2006. Rights groups say soldiers in Marange are still engaging in forced labour, torture and harassment.

The Marange fields – believed to be the biggest source of diamonds found in Africa since the Kimberley fields in South Africa a century ago – have been a major bone of contention between President Mugabe and his partners in the unity government.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supports the resumption of diamond sales but wants to ensure proceeds land in state coffers so they can be used to reduce poverty levels. Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the former opposition leader, has repeatedly accused President Mugabe of making decisions on the diamond fields without consulting him since the formation of the unity government in February 2009.

His MDC ally, finance minister Tendai Biti, disclosed in Parliament this week that at least $30m from illegal sales of diamonds (mostly to Dubai) which dated from when the army mined the fields, remained unaccounted for. Mr Biti proposed a new Diamonds Mining Act this week to properly manage future proceeds.

Under the power-sharing agreement, it is Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party that controls the mines ministry, and his army that provides security for the diamond fields. With such control has come allegations, denied by the 86-year-old, that he is using the gems to line his pockets and those of his cronies.

Carroll Bogert, the associate director of Human Rights Watch said the September review by the Kimberley Process will be a bonus. "If this review mission does its job with the same vigour as the previous one," she told The New York Times, "some of the truths about Zimbabwe diamond mining are going to be exposed. That's a positive."