15 February 2002

Zimbabwe backs away from EU confrontation

The prospect of confrontation between Zimbabwe and the EU over the accreditation of election observers for next month's presidential poll receded yesterday when almost all the 30 "long-term" observers were accredited. An EU spokesman, describing yesterday's developments as "a big step forward", said the mission was hopeful would accredit the team leader Pierre Schori, a Swedish diplomat, "very soon". Mr Schori said he had not yet sought accreditation because he came from one of six "hostile" countries from which Zimbabwe refuses to accept observers. They are Britain, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. None of those accredited are from the six nations, while six observers who were registered yesterday are from Norway, which is not a member of the EU.

Twelve teams will go out into the country today, including "no go areas" and "hot spots". The EU is confident that the deployment of observers will reduce violence and tension, allowing the opposition Movement for Democratic Change to campaign in places where, at present, campaigning is impossible, and build confidence among voters that their votes will be secret.

Zimbabwe's opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, may face criminal charges after claims on Australian television that he plotted the assassination of President Mugabe. An Australian television network, SBS, had broadcasted a grainy video on 14 Feb night purported to be of a meeting between Mr Tsvangirai, the Israeli secret agent Mr Ben-Menashe and other officials of the Montreal-based firm, Dickens and Madson, in Montreal last December. It suggested that those present discussed how to remove Mr Mugabe from power.

Mr Tsvangirai has denied any truth in the report. "There is no substance to the allegations," he said. "It is a smear job. I had discussions about different scenarios that might happen in Zimbabwe. I have discussed how the transition to democracy will go if I am elected. The quotes could easily have been manipulated to be taken out of context."

Mr Ben-Menashe, formerly an official in Israel’s secret service, said he met Mr Tsvangirai twice in London last November. He said the opposition leader did not know the Montreal meeting was being videotaped. Mr Ben-Menashe met diplomats in Harare more than two years ago, indicating that he had business with the Mugabe government long before the video was shot. The film-maker, Mark Davis, arrived in Zimbabwe in January on a tourist visa, without journalist accreditation, but then managed to get an interview with Mr Mugabe - something a journalist without accreditation could not do.

Sources in Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change said charges could be used to prevent him contesting the presidential election due on March 9-10.

Meanwhile, hundreds of self-styled war veterans and supporters of the ruling Zanu-PF party went on the rampage in Zimbabwe's second largest city of Bulawayo on Wednesday evening. Dozens of people, amongst them late night shoppers, were injured in a further escalation of political violence ahead of presidential elections next month. Earlier this week, petrol bombs struck a printing press and a newspaper office in Bulawayo, following warnings from Zanu PF supporters. Trouble started when the mob left the ruling party's provincial headquarters in the south-western city and marched into the city centre beating up anyone they came across. Taxis were stoned and drivers beaten up. People fled in different directions. Those who tried to seek protection from the riot police were chased away. The riot police, according to eyewitnesses, said they were not there to protect MDC supporters. The police watched and did nothing as the war veterans beat up passers by and sang revolutionary songs glorifying president Robert Mugabe. Some wore ruling party T-shirts. The mob also forced their way into one restaurant where they beat up those having dinner. One group then went to Emakhandeni township, another group to Emganwini, where they went house to house asking people to surrender their national identity cards. Without their identity cards, people cannot vote.

The Zimbabwe correspondent for The Independent, Basildon Peta, fled the country fearing for his life last night, after an unprecedented campaign of vilification in the state-controlled media. The attacks reached a peak when Zimbabwe's national television news led its evening bulletin with a smear based on an erroneous front-page article in The Times in London on Tuesday. That inaccurate allegation, dropped in subsequent editions, claimed Mr Peta admitted to the paper that he fabricated a report about his arrest and incarceration last week. The Times' account - seized on by Zimbabwe's state print media - led to extraordinary claims on television that Mr Peta's article caused a drop in the value of the South African rand and was responsible for a collapse in tourism bookings into Zimbabwe. The credibility of the Harare newspaper for which he worked as an award-winning journalist was also attacked.

As a result, Mr Peta quit the Financial Gazette, an independent newspaper critical of President Robert Mugabe, taking an evening flight out of the country to join his wife and two children already in exile. Mr Peta, who is secretary general of Zimbabwe's Union of Journalists, has been threatened with death. Last year, his name appeared at the top of a security service hit list of enemies of the state to be eliminated or put out of the way before the national elections in three weeks. The editor-in-chief of the Financial Gazette, Francis Mdlongwa, described Mr Peta last night as "an outstanding journalist". He said he had every confidence in him. "I will welcome [him] back when the dust has settled," he said. (zwnews)

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