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“Blood diamonds” auction begins in Zimbabwe

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HARARE, Zimbabwe – Zimbabwe began selling hundreds of thousands of carats of rough diamonds Wednesday that were mined from an area where human rights groups say soldiers killed 200 people, raped wom

HARARE, Zimbabwe – Zimbabwe began selling hundreds of thousands of carats of rough diamonds Wednesday that were mined from an area where human rights groups say soldiers killed 200 people, raped women and forced children into hard labor.

Heavily armed police and soldiers guarded top security vaults built at the main Harare airport, where several private jets brought buyers from Israel, India, Lebanon and Russia, officials said.

Abbey Chikane, Zimbabwe monitor of the world diamond control body, certified the diamonds as ready for sale on Wednesday, having said controversy-plagued diamonds from two mines in eastern Zimbabwe met minimum international standards. Some 900,000 carats were put up for auction Wednesday, the mines ministry said.

Investigators for the world’s diamond control body said last year that the gems were mined at the Marange diamond fields by virtual slaves who had been told to dig or die, and were smuggled out by soldiers who raped and beat civilians. Yet the Kimberley Process, the diamond body, said those gems didn’t qualify as “blood diamonds.”

Human Rights Watch says children as young as 10 were forced to work up to 11 hours a day in the Marange diamond fields with no pay or reward. The organization said it had reason to believe that at least 300 children were still working there as of February 2009.

Zimbabwe’s mines ministry accuses human rights groups of “peddling falsehoods” over rights violations.

No estimated value was given for stones, although unofficial estimates range up to $2 billion, a massive boost for Zimbabwe’s ailing economy and representing about one-third of the southern African country’s national debt.

The eastern alluvial diamond fields were uncovered in 2006 and are estimated to be able to meet one-fourth of the world’s demand for diamonds. The find is described as the biggest in southern Africa since diamonds were discovered at Kimberley in South Africa a century ago.