FOREIGN buyers arrived Wednesday at the Harare International Airport for the first authorised sale of diamonds from Zimbabwe's Marange fields since the partial lifting of a ban imposed over alleged human rights abuses.
Buyers came from the United States, Lebanon, Israel, Russia and India, according to an AFP correspondent at the airport.
The international watchdog Kimberley Process is overseeing sale, one month after saying that Zimbabwe had ceased abuses by the military, which seized control of the Marange fields in late 2008, forcing out tens of thousands of small-scale miners.
Human rights groups say about 200 people died in the operation, and that soldiers then beat and raped villagers to forced them to mine the gems in early 2009.
Kimberley blocked the sale of Marange diamonds in November last year, giving Zimbabwe until June to clean up its operations.
Zimbabwe has now contracted operations at Marange to two little-known South African firms, Mbada Diamonds and Canadile Miners, although the region near the Mozambican border remains a high-security zone with a strong military presence.
Kimberley's monitor Abbey Chikane was at the airport for the sale, which will also be audited by Ernst and Young.
"This is a major milestone for the country and the company. We have been waiting for this occasion for so long. This is a momentous occasion " said an official from Mbada, said who want to be named.
The current sale only includes gems mined over the last two months, since Chikane certified that Marange had complied with human rights standards.
Zimbabwe says it has 4.5 million carats of diamonds in its stocks, which government values at US$1.7 billion -- equivalent to more than half the national budget.
Authorities have not said how many diamonds will go on sale Wednesday.
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the former opposition leader who joined long-ruling President Robert Mugabe in a unity government last year, toured the vaults where the diamonds are being kept before the start of the sale. - AFP