Police cower in fear as Mugabe's army of squatters turns violent

Wave of arson and anarchy grips nation as attacks stepped up on white farmers and opposition members ahead of elections
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Amid claims that rising violence is pushing Zimbabwe into anarchy, even members of the country's police force are living in a state of government-imposed fear.

A police constable was standing, staring in tearful anger at the spot where his 25-year-old colleague was shot dead in the back by farm invaders on Tuesday. "It is so unjust. We are here to serve the country but we are being prevented from performing our duties by our own government," he said as colleagues gathered up sticks and whips left at the murder scene by the fleeing invaders.

Yesterday, the political violence in Zimbabwe - a country known since independence for its peaceful, rather sleepy atmosphere - seemed to have reached new levels of horror. A hostage-taking at Mvurwi, 100km from the capital, Harare, enters its third day today as white farmer Neil Hammond is held with his wife, incommunicado, by an estimated 60 squatters armed with knives and clubs. There were also reports of at least two firebombings, and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) issued a list of incidents which included the deaths of a pregnant woman and three of its supporters.

Amongst the police officers mopping up after their colleague's death on Chipesa Farm, there was not only a feeling of hopelessness but also fear. "We could have removed the squatters weeks ago. But we were not allowed to act. We are in danger because we are seen with suspicion on all sides. Now the lid of secrecy has even come down on the murder of a simple policeman who had been a year in the job and was on his bicycle rounds," said the constable, who declined to be identified.

On Tuesday, Chipesa Farm - 4,500 acres of tobacco, maize and paprika situated 75km from Harare - became the latest scene of the growing violence sparked by the desperation of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) to cling to power ahead of parliamentary elections set for May.

It is believed that the young black constable was abducted and shot dead with his own pistol by 20 or 30 Zanu-PF militants occupying the farm. The day before, Iain Kay, the 51-year-old farm owner, was chased and beaten by the same men, who had camped on the property since early February but have since left.

"Two sets of orders go out to the police,'' said Mr Kay as he returned to the farm from hospital yesterday, seven stitches in his right cheek, his back badly bruised and large cuts across his neck and head. "It seems that the bosses in Harare are telling the police not to intervene but that some station commanders, at least verbally, are trying to stop the violence and the invasions."

The Commercial Farmers' Union (CFU) said yesterday that 922 of its members' properties had been invaded since Zanu-PF lost a referendum in mid-February in which it sought to entrench President Robert Mugabe's power and legitimise an uncompensated land grab. The CFU, whose 4,500 members produce 42 per cent of Zimbabwe's foreign currency earnings, said 504 properties were still occupied.

Officially, the invaders are veterans of Zimbabwe's liberation war which ended in 1980. In reality, most of them are unemployed youths under 25 who, many CFU members claim, are paid to carry out invasions and given food which is brought to them on government trucks.

Despite a High Court order demanding that police remove the invaders, President Mugabe has encouraged them to stay and, apparently, ordered officers not to intervene. This week, he has put a constitutional amendment to parliament which, if passed, will authorise the land grab.

Mr Kay, who is a prominent figure in the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), held a meeting with his 120 workersyesterday. He said: "They are supportive of my point of view, indeed it is our shared point of view because we all want the land crisis in this country to be solved.

"But we are now hearing that the occupiers are being trained in the use of firearms and the workers are very very scared,'' added Mr Kay, who at the time of being attacked was inspecting work on a school he has built for his labourers' children. His wife, Kerry, is an Aids educator for the CFU and is currently attending a course in the United States.

A senior farm worker at Chipesa, who did not want to be named, said: "I am ashamed of what is happening, because I am black and it is black people who are bringing violence on to our farms. We need land - I am a trained farmer and I want land - but we need to sit down and talk."

Mr Kay, who was beaten with sticks and whipped with fan belts, said he believed he was attacked because of his involvement in the MDC. "I have always been politically active - indeed one of my main concerns is the land issue which has been neglected by the government for all these years,'' he said. The attackers, whom he described as "thugs and hooligans", included the sons of a former farm foreman who had been nursed by Mrs Kay before dying from Aids.

Police sources yesterday said three farm invaders had been arrested after the shooting of the officer. However, Harare police, who are handling the case, refused to confirm the arrests, saying only: "A police officer was killed and investigations are still going on."