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Zimbabwe: Controversial diamonds up for sale

It's hard to find diamonds these days that are not connected to controversy.

Naomi Campbell and Mia Farrow have contradicted each other in testimony at the trial of former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor in The Hague.

And in Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe's government began the disputed sale Wednesday of a massive amount of rough diamonds that human rights groups charge were mined in conditions where soldiers killed 200 people, raped women and forced children into hard labor.

Several private jets arrived in Harare, bringing in buyers from Israel, India, Lebanon and Russia eager to bid for the 900,000 carats of diamonds up for auction, according to local reports. The diamonds have an estimated value of as much at $2 billion. Heavily armed police and soldiers guarded top security vaults built at the main Harare airport.

Abbey Chikane, the South African official who monitored Zimbabwe for the world diamond control body, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme,  confirmed the diamonds as ready for sale on Wednesday, having said the controversy-plagued diamonds from two mines in eastern Zimbabwe met minimum international standards.

Investigators for the world's diamond control body said last year that the gems were mined at the Marange diamond fields in eastern Zimbabwe by virtual slaves who had been told to dig or die by soldiers who raped and beat civilians. Yet the Kimberley Process, the diamond control organization, 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, that could be a massive boost for Zimbabwe's ailing economy and representing about one-third of the southern African country's national debt. Rights groups charge the money will go to propping up the Mugabe dictatorship and the army but will not benefit ordinary Zimbabweans.

Zimbabwe has not been a major diamond producer, although it has large deposits of gold, platinum, chrome and other minerals. But the alluvial diamond fields were uncovered in eastern Zimbabwe in Marange, near the border city of Mutare in 2006. The huge amount of diamonds in the fields is 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.