UK ready to rescue Britons from Zimbabwe

Secret contingency plans to evacuate thousands of British passport holders from Zimbabwe have been drawn up by the Government.

Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, said last night that ministers had already decided to organise a mass evacuation of British passport holders if the situation in Zimbabwe deteriorated further. Speaking on BBC1's Question Time, Mr Hoon refused to rule out the use of British troops. "If circumstances deteriorated so badly, there are certainly contingency plans in place where we would want to help British passport holders to get to safety," he said.

"Obviously, I don't want to go into too much detail about those plans, but in any situation, in any crisis, in any part of the world, we prepare contingency plans to make sure that British passport holders are safe."

His remarks will cause fury in Zimbabwe and threaten to undermine diplomatic efforts being led by Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, to bring the violent crisis over white-owned farms to an end.

British efforts to broker an end to the crisis failed yesterday when Zimbabwean ministers refused to give a commitment to halt the violence and farm occupations as a condition for foreign aid towards land reform.

As the talks opened at the Foreign Office, Zimbabwean police announced a sweeping crackdown on political activities which, according to opposition parties, will jeopardise free and fair parliamentary elections.

For more than eight hours, Mr Cook was locked in talks with three Zimbabwe cabinet ministers.The Zimbabwean team, led by John Nkomo, the Minister for Local Government and National Housing, and the Foreign Minister, Stanislaus Mudenge, arrived in London insisting Britain had a moral obligation to help finance reform, and did not yield.

Mr Cook said later: "The ball is now in their court," referring to Britain's precondition for an end to the violence before further dialogue can take place. But Mr Nkomo ruled out any compromise."We don't accept that as a condition," he said.

What Britain sees as the illegal occupation of white-owned farms, which has led to the deaths of more than 13 people, was dismissed by one Zimbabwean minister as "peaceful demonstrations" in pursuit of historic justice. Moreover, a commitment to end violence would be a tacit admission that President Robert Mugabe's government was responsible for it.

Mr Mudenge referred to "colonial injustices", saying: "Zimbabwe has always been open to anyone who wants to come. We have nothing to hide, and we don't need any pushing in that direction by Britain."

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