Crisis in Zimbabwe escalates after shooting of policeman

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The Independent Online

The political crisis in Zimbabwe deepened last night after a policeman was shot dead on the property of a white landowner during a struggle with black squatters.

The death, on a farm near Marondera, 70km from the capital, Harare, was the first since gangs of government supporters, claiming to represent veterans of Zimbabwe's war of independence, began invading white-owned farms two months ago.

President Robert Mugabe announced in Cairo yesterday that he had agreed to an offer from the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, of new talks with Britain on land reform, but observers said the death of thepoliceman could give the government an excuse to impose a state of emergency. That would allow Mr Mugabe, whose Zanu-PF party faces annihilation in elections, now scheduled for next month, to suspend the constitution and delay the ballot.

Speculation is growing that Britain is preparing to offer Zimbabwe a new land compensation package in exchange for a commitment by President Mugabe that he will stand down if the elections go against him.

No date has been set for the talks in London and the Foreign Office dismissed suggestions last night that Britain is preparing to give ground on paying compensation for the hand-over of land to black farmers. "We have always said that Britain would help to fund a land reform programme but our conditions for that have not changed," a spokesman said.

The land row, fuelled by President Mugabe's efforts to whip up public support, has soured relations with Britain to their worst level since independence in 1980. President Mugabe is demanding that Britain, Zimbabwe's former colonial master, pay compensation to white owners whose land is seized for peasant farmers. A few thousand white farmers control more than 80 per cent of the country's best land.

Amid growing international alarm, fanned by last Saturday's violence against opposition groups by pro-government supporters on the streets of Harare, Mr Cook on Monday invited President Mugabe to send a delegation to London. Mr Cook also extracted a pledge from the Zimbabwean leader that general elections would go ahead next month, in accordance with the constitution.

It was the first high-level meeting between the two governments since they clashed over President Mugabe's move to encourage the occupation of white-owned farms.

Britain recalled its ambassador in protest last month when Zimbabwe opened a diplomatic consignment bound for its embassy in Harare.

The shooting yesterday took place near the spot where the farm's owner, an opposition activist, Ian Kay, was attacked and badly beaten by squatters on Monday. Police were apparently conducting arrests in connection with the assault when gunshots were heard. According to one report, the policeman had earlier fired his gun into the air. Farmers' leaders had earlier toured the area in an effort to calm emotions running high since Monday's incidents. Mr Kay was tied up, whipped and beaten about the head by up to 25 assailants.

One neighbouring farmer said: "He's lucky to be alive. We've been threatened by these squatters for weeks now, but this time they have crossed the line. If nothing is done, we'll have no choice other than to fight back."

Mr Kay was attacked because he is a known supporter of the Movement for Democratic Change, the main opposition party challenging the President in the elections.