Second farmer killed in Zimbabwe

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Some of the squatters who have taken over hundreds of white-owned farms across Zimbabwe shot and killed a farmer Tuesday, a farm union official said.

Cattle rancher Martin Olds was the second farmer slain by squatters who began taking over white-owned tracts of land in February.

The occupiers opened fire on Olds about 6:30 a.m. (05:30 BST), wounding him, said David Hasluck, director of the Commercial Farmers' Union, which represents white farmers. Olds called for an ambulance by radio, but medical crews were unable to reach his home, which was surrounded by about 100 armed squatters, Hasluck said.

Hours after Olds was shot, police chased the squatters away from his home in Nyamandhlvu, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the western provincial capital, Bulawayo. They found Olds, who was in his late 40s, dead from gunshot wounds, Hasluck said.

The incident comes three days after the killing of David Stevens, a white farmer and supporter of the Movement for Democratic Change, the main opposition party. Five other white farmers were beaten Saturday near the Macheke farming district, 75 miles east of Harare. Police are searching for suspects, the state news agency reported.

"This thing will escalate until somebody takes a stand to stop it," said Chris Jarrett, a white farmer who lived near Olds.

The shooting came just hours before President Robert Mugabe was to make a televised address to the nation on the 20th anniversary of its independence from Britain.

With the country suffering from the farm occupations and its worst economic crisis, military parades, tribal dances, sports displays and other national anniversary celebrations have been canceled.

The government said it canceled the anniversary celebrations to save money that will instead be used to help victims of recent floods in southern and eastern Zimbabwe. However, it is widely believed that Mugabe called off the festivities because of fears of political protests or violence.

On Monday, Mugabe abruptly summoned white farm leaders to his office and promised to personally intervene to "to get things back to normality" on the white-owned farms, said Tim Henwood, head of the farm union.

Government officials declined to comment on the president's first meeting with farm union officials since the occupations began two months ago. It was unclear whether Mugabe's reported promise marked a reversal of his support for the thousands of armed black squatters who have occupied more than 900 white-owned farms.

An account of the meeting in the state-controlled Herald newspaper Tuesday made no mention of Mugabe's reported promise to the farmers. The report said the farmers reaffirmed their support for land reform in Zimbabwe and pledged to keep their organizations out of politics.

Henwood said the president expressed regret over Stevens' death.

"Perhaps the death of David Stevens has been a final catalyst to get some activity to restore law and order in our country," Henwood said. "There's been a major change. I have every assurance from the highest voice in the land."

Mugabe was to meet Tuesday with veterans of Zimbabwe's independence war, who are a driving force behind the occupations, the Herald reported. Mugabe also planned to broker a meeting between the farmers and the veterans, according to the Herald.

The renewed violence, including the killing Saturday of two black opposition party officials in a firebomb attack, has escalated the crisis here. About 80 farmers and their families evacuated from the Macheke district, where Stevens was killed, said Monday they would not return until their safety was guaranteed.

The land occupations began Feb. 16, the day after the government suffered a crushing electoral defeat in a constitutional referendum. Part of the rejected constitution would have let the government seize white-owned farms without paying compensation, a law ruling party legislators passed anyway on April 6.

Opposition leaders said Mugabe planned the occupations as a political ploy to rally support for his party ahead of parliamentary elections expected to be held in May. Hasluck, the farm official, said the union has evidence that a top Mugabe aide, Border Gezi, toured northern Zimbabwe arranging for supporters to move onto white-owned land after the referendum.

Kerry Kay, whose husband, Ian, was one of the farmers bludgeoned by abductors, said his assailants openly boasted of their allegiance to the ruling party. Her husband was targeted as an outspoken opposition supporter, she said.