UPDATE 1-Anglo American says De Beers' diamond sales exceed pre-pandemic levels

(Adds comments from CEO, analyst note, details)

Feb 3 (Reuters) - Miner Anglo American said on Wednesday its diamond unit recorded higher sales in the first cycle of 2021, boosted by robust demand ahead of the Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day.

The upbeat report comes at a time when the diamond industry has been struggling with falling sales and prices as the COVID-19 pandemic hammered demand and the ensuing lockdowns prevented buyers from travelling to auction sites.

“While risks to recovery as a result of ongoing restrictions on the movement of both people and goods persist, we have been encouraged by demand conditions,” said Bruce Cleaver, chief executive officer of De Beers Group.

Anglo American said demand for rough diamonds in the first cycle was also lifted by midstream customers restocking to fill in low levels of inventories in the United States.

The company said the value of rough diamond sales for De Beers’ first sales cycle of 2021 was $650 million, compared with $551 million last year, well before the COVID-19 outbreak hit an already weakened diamond market.

Sales of the first cycle were up 44% from the last round of sales of 2020. Barclays analysts in a note said the sales are 10% above the 20-year average for first sight sales and the highest value single sight since January 2018.

Reporting by Shanima A in Bengaluru; Editing by Amy Caren Daniel