Harare - Zimbabwe on Wednesday opened the first sale of diamonds from its Marange fields since international regulators partially lifted a ban imposed after the military violently seized control of the mines.
About 900 000 carats valued at about $72 were on sale, according to Abbey Chikane, the monitor from the international Kimberley Process which is charged with preventing trade in "blood diamonds".
Buyers from the United States, Israel, Russia, Lebanon and India were at the auction at Harare's airport, some with pilots waiting to jet them out of the country afterwards.
"Indeed it is historic in that we have managed to satisfy the minimum requirements of the Kimberley Process," Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai said in opening the sale.
"We have put in place measures to ensure that we abide by the Kimberley Process principles and sell our diamonds in a transparent manner."
Kimberley last month ruled 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 force 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.
The Wednesday diamond sale will be audited by Ernst and Young. Chikane said the government's only role would be in presenting the stones to buyers.
"I have certified the goods and they are ready for export," he told AFP.
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 a total of 4.5 million carats of diamonds in its stocks, which government values at $1.7bn - equivalent to more than half the national budget.
The sale is a rare point of agreement for Zimbabwe's unity government, formed last year by erstwhile opposition leader Tsvangirai and long-ruling President Robert Mugabe.
While critics fear that Mugabe will siphon off the diamond profits for his Zanu-PF party, Tsvangirai's party has pushed for the auction to shore up the state's dismal finances.
Some estimates predict that Marange could produce more than a billion dollars in diamonds a year, making it one of the biggest finds of the decade.
Zimbabwe has struggled to convince donors to provide direct budget support to the government. The Marange diamonds could prove a windfall that would help rebuild a country shattered by a decade of political unrest and economic collapse.
But finance minister Tendai Biti has highlighted the potential for abuse, telling parliament that none of the $30m in Marange sales ever reached the treasury before the ban last year.