'Bloodbath' warning as EU threatens aid sanctions

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Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, stepped up pressure on Zimbabwe yesterday, saying its multi-million-pound aid package from the European Union would be at risk if elections did not go ahead next month as promised.

The warning came as Zimbabwe's Attorney General, Patrick Chinamasa, spoke in Harare of a "bloody confrontation" if police attempted forcibly to remove squatters from white-owned farms.

Amid mounting concern at land-grab policies encouraged by the Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, Mr Cook was among several EU foreign ministers who raised the prospect of suspension of aid. The result of yesterday's discussions means Mr Mugabe has been given a last chance to show good faith by holding elections before Europe moves to impose sanctions. Although he has said the poll will be next month, he has not told the public of a specific date.

Yesterday's meeting in Luxembourg was designed to take the focus away from London as the former colonial power. Britain is being used by Mr Mugabe as a political target.

The EU ministers issued a statement condemning legislation adopted last week that allows land to be confiscated. Grant and economic assistance to Zimbabwe under the Lomé Convention aid and trade deal is worth between 110m euros (£65m) and 140m euros. Under Article 366 of the treaty, assistance can be suspended if a country is not living up to commitments to preserve democracy and human rights.

Mr Cook said "the immediate priority is to secure elections", adding: "If those elections were not to be held there is the prospect of steps being taken under Article 366. This is not Britain alone speaking, this is the whole of the EU." He cited the support of 11 EU nations including the Netherlands, France, Germany, Portugal, which holds the presidency, Sweden and Denmark. Later Mr Cook told BBC radio Britain's partners "want to make sure that, if we are going to continue with this aid, it is also being used to support economic progress and to buttress democratic freedoms."

More than 800 of Zimbabwe's 6,500 mainly white-owned farms have been occupied by supporters of the ruling Zanu-PF party and former guerrillas from the war that led to majority rule in 1980. Three farmers fled their farms at the weekend when a new round of invasions took place. The High Court is due to issue a ruling in Harare on Thursday as to whether police should remove the squatters by force.

The European Commission began consulting two weeks ago on freezing aid, during which time the political temperature has risen in Zimbabwe. Last week the US froze aid given to fund the land-reform programme, and IMF and World Bank loans have been suspended because of concern over economic management. Release of a tranche of aid under the European Development Fund has been delayed until its committee meets.