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Britain makes plans for Zimbabwe evacuation

Plans for a British-led emergency evacuation of thousands of UK and other European Union nationals from Zimbabwe were confirmed by the Foreign Office as details of the escape route emerged last night.

The scheme, to go into effect if violence and the forcible take-over of hundreds of white-owned farms escalates, is understood to provide for the evacuation by armoured convoy eastwards into Mozambique, where President Joaquim Chissano has said he would be ready to welcome them, and south through the border town of Beitbridge into South Africa.

The most likely assembly points are Harare, Bulawayo, and Mutare in the eastern highlands, linked by road with Mozambique's major port, Beira. The discussions were confirmed by the Portuguese government, which currently holds the EU presidency.

Mozambique has already indicated it would be happy to receive white farmers who want to buy up land for tobacco growing or other ventures and the government in Maputo may feel it owes a debt of gratitude to Britain and other European countries in the wake of their military aid during the recent floods.

There are up to 15,000 residents of Zimbabwe known to hold British citizenship, the Foreign Office said, and perhaps another 5,000 who have not yet registered with the British High Commission. In addition, there may be a substantial number of EU nationals. It is not clear how many possible evacuees have dual nationality, such as British and South African.

The Foreign Office was playing the crisis talk down last night, plainly for fear of throwing oil on an already smouldering fire. "Obviously we'd take the lead in an evacuation," one British diplomat said. "just as the French would be expected to take the lead in a comparable situation in a former French colony." But he stressed there was nothing to indicate that an evacuation was imminent, pointing out that no advisory had been issued against travel to Zimbabwe.

At present, there only a dozen British military advisers in the country, for peace-keeping duties in Southern Africa. But more could be rushed to the region if needed.

The Foreign Office is not hiding its concern over the growing tensions and the uncertainty over President Robert Mugabe's precise intentions as he steps up his pressure on the opposition - which he claims is largely financed by wealthy white farmers, before the parliamentary elections due this month.

That uncertainty grew at the weekend as Mr Mugabe said he would take action within 10 days to begin the redistribution of seized white-owned farms to landless blacks, using emergency legislation empowering the government to confiscate the farmland without compensation.

Such a threat was described as "a big step backwards" by the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, who has said that £36m of aid was waiting for Zimbabwe over the next two years - much of it to fund land re-allocation - if the violence and squatters' occupations ceased.

Though a team of Zimbabwean cabinet ministers refused to give any such undertaking during eight hours of intense talks in London on Thursday, there had been signs of an accommodation between the farmers, the government, and the "war veterans" leading the farm seizures with Mr Mugabe's blessing. Now, however, the emphasis has swung back to intimidation aimed at cowing the opposition into surrender.

Mr Mugabe may also be hoping to pre-empt a meeting of Commonwealth foreign ministers in London tomorrow at which the crisis will top the agenda. The ministers are not expected to suspend Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth, or to impose other sanctions, in the belief that the best chance for a solution lies in pressure from Mr Mugabe's neighbours, notably Mr Chissano and President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa.