HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) -- Zimbabwe has promised to withdraw its soldiers from diamond fields in the east, an official newspaper reported Sunday - a week after a rights group alleged the military was committing killings and abuses in the area.
The move appeared to be an attempt to diffuse criticism over the military's takeover of the Marange diamond fields and ensure that Zimbabwe's precious stones won't be tainted with the "blood diamond" label by activists, which would reduce their value.
The Ministry of Mines denied last month's report by Human Rights Watch that said troops had killed more than 200 people at the Marange diamond fields while forcing children to search for diamonds and beating villagers who got in the way.
Instead, Zimbabwe's coalition government said the military was there to secure the area, about 150 miles (250 kilometers) east of Harare, where mining is managed by the state's Mining Development Corp.
The 60,000-hectare (140,000-acre) Marange diamond fields were discovered in 2006 - at the height of Zimbabwe's political, economic and humanitarian crisis. Villagers rushed to the area and began finding diamonds close to the surface.
The army took over the Marange diamond fields in late October 2008. Before that, the police were in control and Human Rights Watch said there were less abuses then.
Officials of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme - the world's diamond control body - recently visited the fields following allegations that security chiefs and loyalists of President Robert Mugabe were either perpetrating or tolerating rights abuses and illegal diamond exports.
"There cannot be effective security where diamonds are concerned with the involvement of the military," the Kimberley delegation said in a report to the Zimbabwean government, quoted by the state-run Sunday Mail.
The Kimberley report also noted illegal digging and processing of diamonds in Marange and called for stricter controls to stop diamond smuggling across the porous eastern border with Mozambique.
Mines Minister Obert Mpofu on Saturday told Kimberley inspectors that the troops would be withdrawn from the diamond fields and the country would meet international mining standards, the Sunday Mail reported.
"We are going to work toward getting in line with the standards proposed," the paper quoted Mpofu as saying during the meeting.
Mpofu reportedly also told the Kimberley delegation that the coalition government, formed between Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in February, planned to relocate villagers away from the diamond fields and find investors to help provide security.
Deputy Mines Minister Murisi Zwizwai - a member of Tsvangirai's former opposition party - said the coalition government had "agreed to remove the soldiers, but it will be done in phases while proper security settings would be put in place," the Sunday Mail reported.
It is estimated the diamonds could be worth $200 million a month to the cash-strapped southern African nation, which is desperately trying to raise international aid to kickstart the economy. But the unity government has also been under foreign pressure to show signs of reform.
Withdrawing troops from the diamond fields would deflect further negative publicity, show the government's commitment to meeting international obligations and ensure greater revenue from the diamonds that are sold.
On June 26, the New York-based Human Rights Watch cited accounts from more than 100 witnesses, miners, police officers, soldiers and children alleging human rights abuses by troops.
It said its researchers had gathered evidence of mass graves and accounts of an incident last year when military helicopters fired on miners, while armed soldiers on the ground chased villagers away.
It said many victims were unwilling to come forward out of fear of the military.
Human Rights Watch also alleged that some of the income from the diamond fields went to officials of Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, long accused of trampling on human rights and democracy in Zimbabwe.