Tories 'would back ban on Zimbabwe sportsmen'

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The Conservative leader David Cameron today gave his backing to calls for an official ban on next year's planned tour of England by the Zimbabwe cricket team.

Mr Cameron was responding to BBC reports - denied by Downing Street - that Prime Minister Gordon Brown is considering action to exclude all visits by sportsmen from the southern African country in order to isolate the regime of President Robert Mugabe.

The Prime Minister's spokesman said No 10 was "surprised" by the BBC report, and insisted that it was a matter for the English cricket authorities whether the tour went ahead.

"It is not the case that the Prime Minister is considering a blanket ban on Zimbabwe's sportsmen," Mr Brown's spokesman said.

"If (the cricket authorities) decided they want to ban Zimbabwe, we would support them."

Speaking at a press conference before the Downing Street comments were made public, Mr Cameron made clear that he would be ready to offer his party's backing if the Government opted for a blanket ban.

"I think the Prime Minister is right to try to ensure that the cricket tour doesn't go ahead," said the Tory leader.

"If the sort of steps he is speaking about are necessary, then he will have our backing. The end he is trying to achieve is the right end, so I would be very happy to hear what the means are he thinks are necessary to achieve that end."

BBC1's Inside Sport programme last night cited "Downing Street sources" as saying Mr Brown was keen to take a tough stance on the Mugabe regime's human rights abuses and was considering a blanket ban.

A compromise option could be only to stop Zimbabwe's cricketers from coming to the UK, although this would not please the sport's governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC).

The programme said cricket chiefs were warning England could lose the right to host the 2009 Twenty20 World Cup if Zimbabwe was banned.

Currently, the Zimbabweans are due to play two five-day and three one-day internationals next summer.

The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) would have to pay an estimated £225,000 in compensation under ICC rules if the one-day matches were cancelled. There would be no penalty for scrapping the five-day games as Zimbabwe was no longer classed as a Test-playing nation.

The ECB has already held talks with the Zimbabwe Cricket Union (ZCU) to try to reach a financial settlement to call off the tour.

A spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said: "There are ongoing discussions between the Government and the England and Wales Cricket Board, but no decisions have been made."

An ECB spokesman said the board would not comment until it had discussed the matter with Government officials.

Last month, Foreign Secretary David Miliband said a Zimbabwean tour of England would not send out "the right message".

"The situation in Zimbabwe is obviously deeply concerning. I think that bilateral cricket tours at the moment don't send the right message about our concern," he said.

Former Zimbabwe bowler Henry Olonga - who protested against Mugabe at the 2003 Cricket World Cup - said he would welcome any action from Mr Brown.

"It's great to see that Gordon Brown is taking a much stronger stance than his predecessor (Tony Blair)," he told BBC Radio 5 Live.

"Zimbabwe is in a desperate position - 100,000% inflation and there's poverty across the whole country, so it's a desperate, desperate situation."

Shadow foreign secretary William Hague said: "Any action to highlight the dire situation in Zimbabwe and isolate the regime is to be welcomed.

"But rather than posturing about sport, what is urgently needed is tougher sanctions from Europe and the rest of the world, and for Gordon Brown to deliver on his promises to turn the heat up on Mugabe.

"Zimbabwe's leaders continue to go unpunished, and even Robert Mugabe was able freely to visit Europe just a few months ago."

Liberal Democrat culture spokesman Don Foster said: "It's vital that the Government sends a clear message to Robert Mugabe that this country will not tolerate a regime that continues to show such blatant disregard for democracy and fundamental human rights.

"While ultimately being a decision for sports governing bodies, the Government mustn't shirk from taking the lead and calling for a ban where appropriate."

But he added: "We cannot have a situation where ministers grant visas to people like Peter Chingoka, the chair of Zimbabwe Cricket, whenever it suits them, but seek to penalise sportsmen and women making an honest living in this country.

"A blanket ban on all athletes is not the way forward. Each case must be considered on its merits."

Meanwhile, Manchester City Football Club called on the BBC to apologise to Benjani Mwaruwari after Inside Sport named the Zimbabwean striker as someone who could be caught up in any ban.

City spokesman Paul Tyrrell said: "Although we are pleased that the BBC have today been quickly distancing themselves from the claim regarding Benjani, it is important to make the position crystal clear regarding his ability to live and work in the UK.

"The player last month received a three-and-a-half year work permit from the Home Office to play for Manchester City. We have been assured work permits are non-negotiable.

"The programme-makers and the BBC should apologise to the player immediately."