First glimmers of hope in Zimbabwe crisis

The first tentative moves towards ending the crisis in Zimbabwe were made today as the leader of the squatters, who have been occupying white farms for the last few weeks, said that no new farms would be invaded.

Chenjerai Hunzi the squatter's leader vowed to keep up the pressure for land reforms but after meeting with white farm leaders said that the invasions would not escalate.

"We do not plan to occupy more farms at the moment," he said this morning.

President Robert Mugabe also told British journalists this morning that the crisis would come to an end soon.

It was feared that the troubles in Zimbabwe were spiralling out of control last night as squatters were reported to be moving in to seize more farms after peace talks with besieged white farmers and the government failed to halt the land invasions.

Farm sources said women and children were being evacuated from around Bulawayo and in the east, and police confirmed last night that two white women had been raped on a farm south of Harare.

President Robert Mugabe signalled after his first meeting with leaders of the Commercial Farmers' Union, the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association and the War Veterans' Association that the squatters would not immediately withdraw from more than 1,000 white-owned farms they have occupied since February. "There will be no withdrawal in the meantime," Mr Mugabe said after the two-hour session. "[The meeting] has created an atmosphere of understanding even though there may not have been the necessary solution on both sides."

The veterans have insisted from the start of the crisis that they would not end their campaign unless they received a direct order from the President. Yesterday, they apparently prepared to seize more white-owned farms, and fears grew that the instability could spread throughout southern Africa.

Less than 24 hours after Mr Mugabe had described white farmers as "enemies of Zimbabwe", veterans and other Mugabe supporters were reported moving into Matabeleland in the south-west and into the eastern highlands. "We expect Easter will be a horrible time," a CFU spokesman said.

At the same time, the turbulence in Zimbabwe helped to spur new falls in financial markets in South Africa, Zimbabwe's main trading partner.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, warned that disorder in Zimbabwe threatened the entire region, although he claimed to detect readiness on the part of Mr Mugabe to reopen a dialogue after the violence.

In the Commons, Tony Blair said the murders of the two white farmers had been "disgraceful and barbaric", while the United States President, Bill Clinton, condemned "the climate of lawlessness". But the Prime Minister dismissed Tory calls for sanctions and the freezing of Mr Mugabe's foreign assets, warning that it mightprovoke a rise in the violence.

The war veterans' leader, Chenjerai Hunzvi, declared earlier that he was "not responsible for the deaths of the farmers", as he emerged from the courthouse in Harare where he had been convicted of contempt of court for continuing to incite farm occupations.

Meanwhile, in a phone call on Tuesday evening, Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, urged Mr Mugabe to restore calm and order.