Britain will "firmly resist" any attempt to strip British passport holders of their rights of residence in Zimbabwe, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook pledged today.
Reports in the government-controlled press in Harare said the 86,000 holders of dual British and Zimbabwean nationality were to be forced to surrender their Zimbabwean passports.
Official sources failed to either confirm or deny the reports, which raised fears of mass expulsions as the row over white ownership of Zimbabwean farming land heightened.
Reports from the country today claimed squatters had taken over a cattle ranch owned by the former Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith. It was not known if he was on the farm when the occupation occurred.
Today, Mr Cook told BBC1's Breakfast with Frost: "Most certainly the British Government will be firmly resisting any attempt to take away the residence qualification of people who have that right.
"I deplore the rhetoric that has been used in the past two days on this question.
"It would be an enormous mistake for Zimbabwe to attempt to expel British citizens with residence qualifications, because these are people who are making a big impact on the economy and provide the backbone of so much of the exports from Zimbabwe in the agricultural sector.
"I think it is a tragedy that Zimbabwe is in the hands of a backward-looking Government which doesn't recognise the contribution that these people make."
If any moves were made to strip dual nationals of their Zimbabwean passports, Britain would look to members of the United Nations, Southern African Development Community and Commonwealth to make plain to President Robert Mugabe that it was "unacceptable", he said.
The threat emerged as police joined militants of Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party to break up a pro-democracy peace rally in Harare yesterday.
While Zimbabwe has not allowed dual citizenship since 1984, the Harare government has never enforced the ban.
The Citizenship Office is reported to have said that dual nationals were now "deemed residents and not citizens of Zimbabwe".
Tory shadow foreign secretary Francis Maude described the reports as "profoundly disturbing" and called on the Government to act decisively to prevent Mr Mugabe from triggering expulsions.Reuse content