Diamond exports from Zimbabwe’s Marange fields, which hit the headlines following the deaths of small-scale miners six years ago, earned $99 million (R1 billion) at auctions in Belgium and Dubai during the first quarter of this year, official data showed on Monday.

The Marange diamond area, 400km east of Harare, has 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 said up to 200 people were killed during their removal, but President Robert Mugabe’s government has denied the charges and said that rights groups had failed to have the region’s precious stones branded as conflict diamonds by the Kimberley Process industry watchdog.

The government has been trying to improve its conduct in Marange and in December last year started its first sale of the diamonds in an open auction in Antwerp, earning $10m.

This was after the EU removed sanctions on the state mining firm, which is a shareholder in five diamond mining companies.

A Ministry of Mines and Mining Development 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 $99m.

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

The ministry also said it planned to hold a diamond auction in Harare before the end of the year. – Reuters