Zimbabwe's Marange diamond sales earn $99 million in Q1

HARARE, April 7 Mon Apr 7, 2014 9:31am EDT

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HARARE, April 7 (Reuters) - Diamond exports from Zimbabwe's Marange fields, which hit the headlines over the deaths of small-scale miners six years ago, earned $99 million at auctions in Belgium and Dubai during the first quarter of 2014, official data showed on Monday.

The Marange diamond area, 400 km (240 miles) east of Harare, have been the focus of controversy since 20,000 small-scale miners invaded in 2008 and were then forcibly removed by soldiers and police.

Human rights groups say up to 200 people were killed during their removal but President Robert Mugabe's government denies the charges and says rights groups have failed to have its precious stones branded conflict diamonds by industry watchdog Kimberley Process.

The government has been trying to improve its conduct in Marange and in December started its first sale of the diamonds in an open auction in Antwerp, earning $10 million. This was after the European Union removed sanctions on the state mining firm, which is a shareholder in five diamond mining companies.

A ministry of mines statement on Monday showed Zimbabwe sold 960,000 carats in Antwerp at an auction in February and another 381,000 carats in Dubai last month, earning $99 million.

In the past, Zimbabwe sold its diamonds through middlemen, arguing it could not openly market its stones because of Western sanctions that were imposed on President Robert Mugabe, his allies and companies with links to his government.

The ministry of mines said it planned to hold a diamond auction in the capital Harare before the end of the year.

(Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe, editing by David Evans)

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