Debts force Zimbabwe to cancel flights to London

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The Independent Online

Zimbabwe's state-run airline has cancelled all flights to London, fearing the aircraft would be impounded to cover unpaid debts. The decision to ground flights will come as a fresh blow to Zimbabwe's collapsing economy. The country relies on Air Zimbabwe, and the tourists it brings, for much of its foreign currency.

Air Zimbabwe announced the decision to stop the thrice-weekly flights after a European air safety agency won a court order allowing it to seize planes to cover a $2.8m (£1.5m) debt. Air Zimbabwe board chairman, Mike Bhima, said: "As a security measure, our lawyers have advised us to suspend flights pending discussions."

Rising costs of fuel and equipment last month forced Air Zimbabwe to raise airfares by 500 per cent. The cost of an economy return flight to London soared to £3,900. The same flight on British Airways is £450.

The cost of living in Zimbabwe has become increasingly expensive with the official inflation rate running at 1,200 per cent. Experts have put the real figure at 4,000 per cent. Prices for staples such as a loaf of bread rise daily, even by the hour.

President Robert Mugabe has pinned the blame for Zimbabwe's economic woes on Britain and the West, but aid agencies and ordinary Zimbabweans have pointed to an ill-fated land reform programme and a slum demolition scheme that made 700,000 people homeless.

Hundreds of thousands of tourists used to flock to Zimbabwe to see the Victoria Falls, but numbers have dwindled, with Zambia now benefiting. The grounding of Air Zimbabwe's London flights will damage tourism - and the wider economy - even further.