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Zimbabwe auctions diamonds from notorious field

JOHANNESBURG - Zimbabwe auctioned 900,000 carats of rough gems from a diamond field where human rights groups say soldiers killed 200 people, raped women and enslaved children.

It was the first public sale of diamonds from the notorious Marange field in eastern Zimbabwe since international regulators imposed a ban in November under rules designed to screen out conflict gems.

The sale happened to coincide with the "blood diamonds" phase of the war crimes trial of Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president. Taylor's case and the Zimbabwe sale are unrelated, but both point to the successes and difficulties facing the campaign to regulate the trade in diamonds that has helped finance wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Angola, Congo and now Ivory Coast.

The auction in Harare went ahead after the gems were certified as conflict-free by Abbey Chikane, a monitor for the Kimberley Process that oversees trade in the diamonds. Chikane had established that soldiers were gone from two fenced-off commercial mines producing the diamonds, and that the mines were operating according to "minimum international standards." In the rest of the field, where Zimbabwe's military still holds sway and abuses reportedly continue, a ban on diamonds remains in place. But there is no guarantee its product won't infiltrate into the legitimately mined stones.

The arrangement so angered American gem trader Martin Rapaport that in February he quit as president of the World Diamond Council. "The tragedy of Zimbabwe is that the Kimberley Process has started legitimizing, legalizing, kosherizing blood diamonds," he said in a phone interview from Israel. The Marange field was discovered in 2006 and is believed the world's biggest since the 19th century.

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