US ambassador is held at gunpoint over Mugabe 'plot'

Ambassador Christopher Dell found himself looking down the wrong end of a gun as he was held at bayonet and gunpoint for more than one-and-a-half hours by the presidential guard after walking up a restricted hill at the National Botanical Gardens. The hill overlooks one of President Mugabe's official residences, located about a mile away.

The American embassy said the ambassador had inadvertently walked into the poorly marked military area while in the gardens last Monday.

The hill in the gardens is not fenced off, but it has been restricted since 1981 when shots were fired at the residence from the top.

But the incident was sufficient for the Zimbabwean government to accuse Mr Dell yesterday of attempting to provoke a diplomatic stand-off. George Charamba, the President's spokesman, told the state-run Herald newspaper that Mr Dell was lucky to be alive after the incident. "The ambassador must consider himself very lucky that he is dealing with a professional Zimbabwe National Army. Elsewhere, and definitely in America, he would have been a dead man."

The Zimbabwean foreign ministry said in a statement: "Such action was taken in a calculated disregard of the rules governing relations between states and was clearly intended to provoke an unwarranted diplomatic incident." Mr Dell "purposefully proceeded to enter the zone and would have continued to enter the security installations were it not for the timely intervention of the Presidential Guard".

Government sources quoted by the newspaper said the incident was part of an American plan to effect "regime change" in Zimbabwe. Mr Dell was only released when the foreign ministry intervened.

Yesterday, the American embassy expressed surprise that the Zimbabwe authorities had gone to the media as the US government considered the matter closed.

Mr Dell had accepted apologies from two senior Zimbabwean foreign affairs officials over his brief detention, including an explanation that the guards who had held him did not know how to deal with issues involving diplomats, the embassy statement said.

Relations between the US and Zimbabwe have soured in recent years, with Washington accusing Mr Mugabe's government of rigging elections and abusing human rights.

The Americans, as well as the rest of the diplomatic community, are frustrated by the results of attempts to pressurise Mr Mugabe to reverse the policies that have left his once-prosperous people dependent on aid handouts.

But the 81-year-old President says his economy has been sabotaged by Western powers seeking to overthrow him. Punitive measures such as targeted sanctions have failed to produce results, while the "softly softly" approach of dialogue led by President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa has also failed. Mr Mugabe "is entrenched and not subject to outside pressure", one senior US official said.

Some diplomats say that the most likely outcome to the Zimbabwe crisis in the long term is that a new leadership successor would emerge from inside Mr Mugabe's ruling party. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change is weakened and has been split since an announcement this week by its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, that the party would boycott the elections for the new Senate.

But yesterday, one MDC faction began considering candidates for the Senate vote next month, which critics say would be loaded with the President's supporters.

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