Kimberley grants Zimbabwe conditional diamond sale

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The Kimberley Process against "blood diamonds" will allow Zimbabwe to sell some diamonds from its controversial Marange fields, in a decision that left the watchdog sharply divided Friday.

Rights groups walked out of the Kimberley meeting Thursday in Kinshasa, where African countries, China and India supported the decision, which had been opposed by Western nations, rights groups and the industry.

"We have made a breakthrough," Zimbabwe mines minister Obert Mpofu told the state-run Herald newspaper in Harare.

The Kimberley Process had endorsed exports from the two mines operated by Marange Resources and Mbada Diamonds "with immediate effect without supervision," he said.

The decision taken by Mathieu Yamba of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who holds Kimberley's rotating chair, appears to allow sales from the two firms in Marange once a team of two monitors have signed off on the deal.

Currently five licensed firms operate in Marange, but only three are mining at full throttle, while the other two say they have only found minimal reserves after exploration.

US-based diamond group Rapaport Trade quickly advised members not to trade in the Marange gems.

"Marange goods (are) expected to be released shortly," Rapaport said in an advisory to members. "Responsible buyers should require supplier guarantee that they are not selling these diamonds to them."

Western companies fear the bad press that comes with "blood diamonds" -- gems sold to finance armed conflicts.

Western nations and rights groups pushed for the Kimberley Process (KP), originally meant to cut off financing for brutal rebellions in Liberia and Sierra Leone, to bar trade in any diamonds tainted by violence and abuses.

But companies in China, India and the Middle East do not face the same public pressure from their customers and have proved more eager to tap into what has been touted as Africa's biggest diamond find of the decade.

And other African nations have been reluctant to apply the same standard to a sitting government as to armed rebels.

Campaigning groups including Global Witness and Partnership Africa Canada walked out of the meeting in outrage at the decision, arguing that the ruling undermined the scheme's credibility.

In a joint statement, the groups said Kimberley's decision had failed to protect civilians living and working in Marange and so the scheme was not meeting its most basic commitment.

"It does not prevent diamonds from fuelling violence and human rights violations," they said.

Britain's Africa minister Henry Bellingham also criticised the move, contradicting the statement issued at the Kimberley Process meeting that there had been a consensus on the question.

"This is not the case as the proposals fell well short of offering a credible mechanism for ensuring that only Kimberley Process compliant diamonds could be exported from Zimbabwe," he said in a statement.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, in a more restrained statement, nevertheless also denied that the meeting had reached a consensus on the matter, so the decision "is not therefore valid under KP rules and procedures."

The Marange fields have been at the centre of a years-long controversy over abuses by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's military.

Monitors say the military seized control of the fields in late 2008, violently evicting tens of thousands of small miners and then beating and raping civilians to force them to mine the gems.

Zimbabwe conducted a KP monitored sale last year, although the move was opposed by countries including Canada and United States.

That sale raised $100 million dollars according to government figures, after selling 400,000 carats.

© 2011 AFP

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