UK planning armed rescue as Mugabe set to seize farms

In defiance of warnings from Britain, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe yesterday confirmed he will invoke special powers in the next 10 days to allow the forced and uncompensated acquisition of white-owned land.

Amid signs of deepening political unrest, the Foreign Office also confirmed yesterday that it has discussed evacuation plans for thousands of European passport holders in consultation with its EU partners. Details remain secret, and Foreign Office officials insist that no evacuation is imminent, but the plan is believed to involve armoured convoys travelling by road from three main centres in Zimbabwe, east into neighbouring Mozambique.

The Foreign Secretary Robin Cook also announced yesterday that he is postponing a visit to Iran scheduled for the coming weeks. The tour was called off partly because of a clash with the Iranian election results, but officials said Mr Cook was also "very occupied" with Zimbabwe.

In Harare yesterday, George Charamba, Mr Mugabe's spokesman, said the special presidential powers were being invoked in the absence of a parliament. It was dissolved earlier this month ahead of elections, the date of which Mr Mugabe has yet to announce.

The move to press on with the seizure of over 800 designated farms was condemned by the British government and leaders of white farmers in Zimbabwe, who accused the country's rulers of a "breach of faith".

War veterans leader Chenjerai "Hitler" Hunzvi, who is directing the black squatters and their co-ordinated invasions of more than 1,000 white-owned farms, said he would tour the country shortly in an effort to calm tensions and ensure that crop planting can begin within three days. At least 13 people have died from political violence in recent weeks.

But despite an apparent "deal" between the squatters and the white farmers on Friday to end the violence, there were more reports of brutal attacks throughout the weekend. Three more farms were invaded on Saturday and at least 27 farm labourers attacked. Squatters attacked labourers overnight on three farms in Mvurwi, 75 miles north of the capital, David Hasluck, the head of the commercial farmers union, said.

He said that in a separate incident, a farmer travelling with employees in a pickup truck in Masvingo, 75 miles south of Harare, was stopped by war veterans, who smashed the vehicle's windows. The farmer escaped, but two workers were abducted. One was found severely beaten yesterday, the other was still missing. Supporters of the government are also reported to be organising "re-education" camps for black farm labourers, and demanding that white farmers ferry workers to them.

The news that the President will allow the legal seizure of white-owned farmland, without compensation, appeared to strengthen the resolve of many supporters of Zanu-PF, the ruling party. Policemen and soldiers were already busy at the weekend, pegging out plots on farmland they think will soon be theirs.

Zimbabwe maintains that the issue of compensation to white farmers is the responsibility of Britain, the former colonial power. However, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told the Zimbabweans bluntly last week that though Britain was willing to put £36m into a land distribution programme, Zimbabwe would not see a penny if the violence sweeping the country did not end, "war veterans" occupying land did not leave and free and fair elections were not held.

The announcement that Zimbabwe will press ahead with its own plan to confiscate land seems to be Mugabe's reply to Britain. "Britain's stance is not our problem," said Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwean Justice Minister, on Saturday.

"It does not matter what they think or say. We are going ahead with our plans whether they like it or not," he said.

Mr Cook warned at the weekend that the seizure of land without compensation was entirely unjustifiable and would be "a big step backwards".

Zimbabwe's white farmers announced on Friday they had reached an agreement with the "war veterans", who have occupied 1,000 white-owned farms and threatened, beaten and killed farmers and farm workers as part of a wider pre-election campaign of terror by Zanu against the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

The agreement, the farmers said, would allow land to be handed over to blacks. They said they would be hammering out a plan with the veterans in the next two weeks.