Ministers give Mugabe visit the brush-off

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN was preparing a chilly welcome and an equally sharp dressing down last night for President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, currently taking time away from his problem-racked country for a private visit to London.

Normally, a foreign head of state and government visiting Britain, even at short notice, would expect to be received by the Prime Minister, or, at the very least, by the Foreign Secretary.

This time, however, a request from the Zimbabwean side for a meeting drew nothing more than an offer of talks on Friday with Tony Lloyd, a Foreign Office minister.

Officially, the reason is the tight schedules of Tony Blair and Robin Cook, both busy with meetings abroad and important parliamentary engagements.

No less plainly, however, Britain is signalling its disapproval of Mr Mugabe's policies, and the plight they have brought upon his country.

Foreign Office officials confirmed that, in the unlikely event that the meeting with Mr Lloyd went ahead, the minister would raise a host of concerns: about the growing social unrest in Zimbabwe, the peremptory expropriation of 841 mostly white-owned farms, human-rights abuses and the involvement of a reported 6,000 Zimbabwean troops in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, helping President Laurent Kabila to fend off a Tutsi uprising in the east.

Before arriving in Britain moreover, Mr Mugabe flouted United Nations sanctions by flying to Tripoli for talks with Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, whom he is believed to have asked for help in shoring up Zimbabwe's crumbling finances after a 50 per cent plunge in its currency against the US dollar this year.

However, Mr Lloyd told the Commons yesterday that, for all its complaints, Britain would not cut aid to Zimbabwe.

"Our assistance goes to the poorest people in Zimbabwe," he told Tory critics. "If you think British project aid would be replaced by Zimbabwean government assistance, you are simply wrong."

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