Cook refuses to seize Mugabe's assets

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The Independent Online

Robin Cook insisted yesterday that he would "take every responsible and reasonable step" to achieve free elections in Zimbabwe, firmly ruling out demands to freeze President Robert Mugabe's international assets over the treatment of white farmers.

The Foreign Secretary warned during question time that such moves would provoke "retaliation" by Mr Mugabe, in the form of further farm seizures. "Mr Mugabe has repeatedly tried to turn the election into a confrontation between Zimbabwe and Britain," he said. "I have sought in all my statements to demonstrate that Britain is not an enemy, but a friend, of the people of Zimbabwe.

"It is because of that friendship that Britain is leading the international demand that the government of Zimbabwe respect the rule of law and that the people of Zimbabwe must have the right, through free and fair elections, to decide for themselves who will govern the country.

"We will continue to take every responsible and reasonable step to secure those twin demands," he said.

However, Mr Cook has made clear that the multi-million-pound aid package from the European Union could be in jeopardy if free elections do not go ahead as promised. EU ministers have issued a statement condemning legislation adopted last week that allows land to be confiscated.

Grant and economic assistance to Zimbabwe under the Lome Convention, an aid-and-trade deal, is worth up to 140m euros (£82m). Under the treaty, assistance can be suspended if a country does not live up to commitments to preserve democracy and human rights. Mr Cook will be raising the issue at the Commonwealth ministerial action group meeting in two weeks time.

Francis Maude, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said that Britain must not stand "idly by", and accused Mr Cook of "limply" agreeing to "muzzle" his criticisms in talks with Mr Mugabe last week.

"This is a serious crisis in which Britain has a direct interest. Crises call for statesmanship. You don't even get close," said Mr Maude. Mr Cook replied by condemning Mr Maude's comments as "empty, gesture politics".

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