Sat, 01 Apr 2000

Political crisis in Zimbabwe deepens

By Matthew Engel and Andrew Meldrum

HARARE: The political crisis in Zimbabwe worsened on Thursday as more white-owned farms came under occupation from war veterans and the first reports came through that the confrontation was turning more violent.

In Harare, city workers remained on strike for a fourth successive day, leaving water supplies either cut off or undrinkable. Though the petrol situation was easier, commuters had seen five-hour queues rewarded with five-liter rations; lorries and commuter buses had to wait six hours for diesel.

Meanwhile, the Zimbabwean government continued to pile the blame for the problems on to Britain, with an attack on the Foreign Office minister Peter Hain by Zimbabwe's information minister, Chen Chimutengwende, who accused him of acting as though he were "governor of Rhodesia".

With elections only weeks away that may lead to President Robert Mugabe losing power after 20 years, clashes are erupting throughout the country between supporters of the ruling Zanu-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

A teenage MDC supporter died in the Mvurwi area of northern Zimbabwe on Tuesday, two days after being stoned by Zanu-PF members. He was on the back of a lorry taking people to a rally.

In a separate incident, two white visitors from South Africa were seriously beaten by a gang identified as Zanu-PF supporters; one is in a coma and has been airlifted to South Africa for treatment.

The two visitors were assaulted in the central city of Kwekwe on Tuesday night. Their attackers had apparently decided to assault some white people to demonstrate their support for Mugabe. Police have arrested 14 people in connection with the beatings.

The number of properties invaded by veterans of the war against Rhodesian rule rose to 800 two days ago, well over 20 per cent of the country's commercial farms. A number of people have been beaten by the squatters but, on Mugabe's orders, the police have failed to take any action.

The farm invasions were led by Chenjerai "Hitler" Hunzvi, who has threatened to take the country to war if the opposition wins the parliamentary elections. Hunzvi has received backing from Mugabe.

On Wednesday, Hunzvi led a group of 70 to the farm of professional hunter Richard Pascal. Claiming that Pascal was running a "training camp" for MDC supporters, Hunzvi and his gang broke down the locked gate, beat up a young black visitor, took Pascal's handgun and stormed into his house.

The group seized 11 guns and other weapons from Pascal before leaving the property. The weapons, all legally registered, are being held by police.

The bewildering dispute between Britain and Zimbabwe continued with the attack from Chimutengwende, who spent 12 years in Britain when Ian Smith's illegal regime ruled Rhodesia, and worked as a freelance journalist (contributing once to the Guardian newspaper in London) and journalism lecturer.

"I used to vote Labour myself when I was there. But it was always the same. We were always disappointed," he said. "The trouble with Labour is that they are so paternalistic.

"Hain makes statements on any issue in Zimbabwe, whether it concerns Britain or not. He behaves as though he were governor of Rhodesia, and he is very emotional about it. I think he suffers from a colonial mentality."

The minister said there was nothing fundamentally wrong with Anglo-Zimbabwean relations, and he declined to comment on Mugabe's continuing claims that Britain was run by a government of gay gangsters. Some diplomatic sources suggest that, despite the insults, efforts are continuing at official levels to ease the tension, both between the governments and in the countryside.

Even so, with the Zimbabwean government under siege from all directions, there is no sign yet that it is ready for a show of humility. Chimutengwende said: "The British should keep out of internal affairs and stop making statements about what is good for us and what is not good for us."

-- Guardian News Service