Cricketers (and media) allowed in... as aid workers are forced out

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The England cricket team arrives in Zimbabwe today for a five-match tour despite increasing unrest about the failure to protect players from manipulation by Robert Mugabe's regime.

The England cricket team arrives in Zimbabwe today for a five-match tour despite increasing unrest about the failure to protect players from manipulation by Robert Mugabe's regime.

The 14-man squad, which had been waiting in South Africa for a decision on whether to go, reluctantly agreed yesterday to begin the trip after the Zimbabwean government lifted the partial ban on British media which had prompted the team to delay its departure from Johannesburg.

The four-day stand-off over media accreditation caused postponement of the first match due in Harare today but the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has pledged to play all five one-day games in a revised schedule. The team is also flying into considerable anger because the visit coincides with a controversial bill that critics of the Mugabe regime claim is driving out the aid organisations which have been a last line of defence for a population already threatened by famine and an HIV-Aids epidemic.

When the cricketers arrive in Harare, they are likely to encounter an exodus of international aid workers travelling in the opposite direction. All foreign funding for the non-governmental agencies is to be outlawed under legislation that passed its second reading in the Zimbabwean parliament on the eve of the tour's proposed start.

Cathy Buckle, a campaigning writer and charity worker , said: "[The NGO bill] is now a fait accompli and it will become law in the next week or two. The consequences will be diabolical."

An estimated 3,000 NGOs employing 20,000 workers have been operating in Zimbabwe. Some are preparing to go underground, some plan to move to neighbouring countries and others expect to close.

Under President Mugabe, Zimbabwe has slumped to last place in The Economist Global quality-of-life index. The farm seizure policy launched four years ago, giving Mugabe supporters formerly white-owned farms, has crushed agricultural output, caused famine and sent the country into economic meltdown. He presides over a country with the fastest-shrinking economy, 300 per cent inflation and 80 per cent unemployment. Critics of the regime are expelled, imprisoned or terrorised.

The cricketers, led by the captain, Michael Vaughan, held crisis meetings in a Johannesburg hotel for most of yesterday afternoon with leaders from the ECB and their union, the Professional Cricketers' Association, which said it had moral, political and contractual concerns over the tour.

As government ministers in Britain repeatedly denounced the tour but insisted they were powerless to intervene, sources close to the team, which was similarly isolated before withdrawing from a World Cup match in Harare two years ago, said the players felt they had been "used" by Mr Mugabe.

The team are expected to board a flight to Harare at 10.30am today. British journalists fly on a separate flight this morning, apart from a BBC crew thought to be en route to Harare last night.

After Zimbabwe granted accreditation to 13 blacklisted members of the British media, Mr Mugabe's officials said the problem had arisen because those denied accreditation - seven national newspapers and the BBC - had supplied insufficient information on their application forms.

The Zimbabwean Information Ministry had said earlier that the BBC and newspapers including the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph - which Mr Mugabe has accused of being an agent of MI5 - were being excluded for alleged hostility to the Zimbabwean government.

Alan Duncan, the Conservative international development spokesman, whose party called for the tour to be abandoned, said: "Now the ban on journalists has been lifted, a cricket tour most people don't want to go ahead, will now go ahead. Having used cricket as a political weapon internationally, Mugabe will be free to use starvation as a political weapon domestically."


Farms and famine

In the past four years, 4,500 white farms have been seized by President Robert Mugabe, leaving 400,000 black farm workers destitute and leading to a nationwide famine.

Agricultural output has plummeted by 90 per cent since land seizures began and prize farms were parceled out to Mr Mugabe's cronies.

Nearly 200 people have died of hunger in the second largest city, Bulawayo, according to the municipality's records. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Mgr Pius Ncube, says deaths due to hunger could run into thousands but go unreported, particularly in overcrowded rural areas. State hospitals are banned from reporting starvation-related deaths.

An Amnesty International report has condemned Mr Mugabe's government for using food as a political weapon to punish opponents. A UN food assessment mission has been banned from conducting its work, forcing donors to stop emergency food distribution.

The economy

Unemployment stands at 80 per cent, with inflation at 300 per cent and climbing.

Zimbabwe now boasts the fastest shrinking economy in the world after it contracted by 13 per cent last year.

The brain drain in the past four years has left only two doctors in the entire country qualified to perform a post-mortem examination.

Freedom of speech

Arrests of Zimbabwean civic activists, including leaders of trade unions and the women's movement, and student protesters continue while the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai faces the death penalty in a second trial where he is charged with treason. Three opposition members of parliament have died in suspicious circumstances, all were attributed to accidents.

Draconian media legislation has forced the closure of three privately owned newspapers, outlawed private broadcasting and led to the arrest and imprisonment of 48 journalists.

The media crackdown may now be taken even further, with any journalist operating without a government licence facing a two-year jail term.

There has been international outrage over the case of Roy Bennett, a white MP, who was sentenced to 15 months of hard labour following a scuffle with an ally of Mr Mugabe in parliament.

Gesturing at Mr Mugabe's official motorcade has become a criminal offence.

Basildon Peta