UK 'braced to take 20,000 white Zimbabwe refugees'

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The Independent Online

Up to 20,000 white Zimbabweans may seek refuge in Britain if the violence in the crisis-torn country escalates in the run-up to elections, it was reported today.

Foreign Office Minister, Peter Hain, revealed the Government was prepared for several thousand farmers and their families to apply to come to Britain if the security situation in the southern African country worsened.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph he confirmed contingency plans were in place to deal with applicants.

Up to 20,000 have British passports and tens of thousands were eligible to apply for them, The 'paper quotes a FO source as saying.

However, he emphasised that these were only contingency plans and added: "I hope we won't get a situation where they feel their future is no longer there."

Mr Hain said an exodus from the country would be the worst outcome: "We would look at each case on its merits, we would neither welcome people or turn people away. But I desperately hope for Zimbabwe's sake that it doesn't get to that."

However he did express serious concerns about the fairness of next month's elections.

Earlier this week, he criticised Zimbabwe's government for inciting "lawlessness" over the occupation of white-owned farmland by veterans of the independence war.

And he said he was "disturbed" about the way President Robert Mugabe's government was handling the increasingly tense situation as next month's elections approached.

Former guerrillas continue to defy a court order to leave nearly 600 white-owned farms they have occupied over the past month.

Some 4,000 white farmers own about a third of the country's productive land, while landless rural blacks account for more than 70% of the 12.5 million population.

The High Court in Harare ordered police to begin evicting or arresting the squatters, but the order has been ignored.

Meanwhile, relations between Britain and Zimbabwe remain strained following the recent crisis in diplomatic relations.

A diplomatic row broke out earlier this month after it emerged that a diplomatic bag from London had been opened.