Zimbabwe's Parliament voted yesterday to empower the seizure of land from white farmers and make Britain liable for compensating them.
After weeks of tension, the vote paves the way for President Robert Mugabe to claim a moral victory over the country's powerful white farmers, call on squatters to leave the farms they have been occupying, and organise peaceful elections.
But within moments of the amendment to the constitution being passed, the stage was set for a clash between the government and its foot soldiers - thousands of war veterans it has paid to lead the occupations of more than 500 of the country's 4,500 white-owned farms. "We will not move off the land," said their leader, Chenjerai Hitler Hundzvi. "We have been waiting so long for this land that we will stay and wait for the amendment to be put into action."
In London, the Government dismissed the vote as unenforceable. "One sovereign and independent state cannot use its constitution to impose conditions on another," a spokeswoman for the Department for International Developmentsaid. "The British Government does not accept that (the decision) imposes any obligations on the United Kingdom."
President Mugabe, who spoke on Wednesday about "going back to the trenches" against Britain is today expected to use the first election rally of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) to call for an end to farm invasions.
He is under considerable international pressure to officially set a date for the poll, already delayed from this month.
Although the wording of the 16th amendment to the constitution appears far-reaching - it calls on Britain to pay compensation for compulsorily acquired land and absolves the Zimbabwean government from making any outlay - its passage through parliament is widely seen as a pre-election gimmick. It is understood the country's land acquisition act would need to be changed before any land grabs could go ahead.
"This is the political solution the president has been looking for," a spokesman for President Mugabe told The Independent. "He has always said the land occupations could not be solved through the courts, only through a dialogue, the modalities of which have yet to be decided.''
The Foreign Office admitted President Mugabe's war-like declarations were "worrying" and said it would not respond directly to his threats. Britain has spent £48m on land resettlement since Zimbabwe's independence, but payments stopped after Britain claimed President Mugabe was allocating land to his cronies and not the peasants who needed it.
The President's narrow success in pushing through the amendment came after he lost a referendum in February which proposed the same text.
Many black Zimbabweans believe they will not eat if commercial farmers are thrown out of the country. There is widespread anger at the deteriorating economy, worsened by ruling party corruption, which includes the allocation of farms to ministers.
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