Expat Zimbabweans urged to come home

Zimbabwe's main opposition leader, on a visit to Britain, yesterday urged his compatriots to return home to help oust President Robert Mugabe. But in the capital, Harare, there was little sign of an end to the political tension, as riot police sealed the city centre for several hours.

Morgan Tsvangirai, the 48-year-old leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) told a meeting of more than 1,000 at the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster: "We want you to participate in the political processes of your own country. We want you to come back home. The battle is not outside, the battle is in the changes at home.''

Zimbabwean nationals living in Britain - many young professionals likely to support the MDC - are not expected to have the right to vote in forthcoming parliamentary elections unless they travel home.

Amid growing concern that the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) intends to stage violent clashes implicating the MDC, the opposition party and democracy activists cancelled plans for a rally in Harare yesterday and staged one in the second city, Bulawayo, in the south of the country.

Despite reports yesterday that government-inspired squatters were leaving some of the 500 farms they have occupied since February, there were more attacks on whites.

Last night, a farmer's wife from Marondera, east of Harare, telephoned the Independent on Sunday and said her husband, David, a man called Gary Luke, and possibly some children had been taken hostage by people calling themselves veterans, and driven to Murewa, 40 miles away.

The Swedish-born woman, Maria Stevens, said one white farmer, John Osborne, had been severely beaten and is in hospital in Marondera.

She said calling a journalist was "her only contact with the outside world'' because the police are partisan, and added: "I was returning to the farm from Harare when I was told they had been taken and John had been beaten.

"We have been ordered to leave our farms and premises tonight and nobody is allowed to stay.''

Despite the interpretation by Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook that President Mugabe's CNN television interview on Friday contained more moderate language than of late, there was no sign in Zimbabwe of a softening of tactics.

Yesterday, the war veterans' leader, Dr Chenjirai "Hitler'' Hunzvi, told the Zanu-PF gathering in Harare that only President Mugabe had the authority to order invaders to leave the farms.

The state news agency, Ziana, says he told the closed meeting: "Even if I had the power it would be against my conscience. I did not send them there and I cannot and I will not withdraw them.''

President Mugabe, 76, will next have an opportunity to a order a withdrawal of the occupants - and possibly a date for the delayed elections - in a television address expected to mark Tuesday's 20th anniversary of the end of white rule.

He is expected to return to Zimbabwe today after attending a third world leaders' conference in Havana, Cuba.

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