Zimbabwe farmers flee their homes

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The Independent Online

In the latest development in Zimbabwe's government-driven land crisis, up to 60 rural white families last night fled their homes after one farmer was kidnapped in his own Land Rover and three others, who gave chase, disappeared. Witnesses said that the three were abducted by police.

Late last night, the whereabouts of David Stevens, a white farmer active in opposition politics, and of the three other farmers in the Virginia farming district, around Marondera, 75km east of the capital, Harare, were unclear.

Mr Stevens' wife, Maria, said she discovered that her husband had been taken away yesterday afternoon when she returned from the capital. "I was told that under no circumstances should I go to the farm and that we had been ordered never ever to go back," said Mrs Stevens.

As soon as the other farmers in the Virginia district learned of the incident, they decided through VHF radio conversations to take the threat seriously and leave their homes en masse. Mrs Stevens, who phoned the Independent On Sunday claiming she felt safer speaking to a journalist than to the police, said that between 50 and 60 families had left their farms. Many were last night gathered in the Marondera Country Club, anxiously awaiting news of Mr Stevens and the three other farmers. They said a fourth white farmer, John Osborne, who tried to intervene during Mr Stevens' abduction, had been taken to hospital with bruises and a broken nose.

Judy Keith, one of those preparing to spend the night at the country club, said: "We know that David was taken in his own Land Rover. There was a car in front and another behind. The three who followed them headed towards Murehwa but the police will not tell us if they are locked up, nor if they know where David is. We are all terrified and do not know what to do next."

It was not clear last night who had issued the threat which led to all farms in Virginia being evacuated but Mrs Keith said local police had encouraged the farmers to leave their homes.

The Marondera area has been particularly volatile since land occupiers, spearheaded by liberation war veterans, began moving on to farms in central Zimbabwe in February.

In Harare, there was little sign of an end to political tension, as riot police sealed the city centre for several hours and the war veterans' leader, Chenjirai "Hitler'' Hunzvi, told a gathering of the ruling party, Zanu-PF, that only President Robert Mugabe had the authority to order invaders to leave the farms.

Mr Mugabe, 76, will next have an opportunity to a order a withdrawal of the occupants - and possibly a date for the delayed elections - in a television address expected to mark Tuesday's 20th anniversary of the end of white rule. He is expected to return to Zimbabwe today after attending a third world leaders' conference in Havana, Cuba.

Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe's main opposition leader, on a visit to Britain, yesterday urged his compatriots to return home to help oust Mr Mugabe. The 48-year-old leader of the Movement for Democratic Change told a meeting of more than 1,000 at the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster: "We want you to participate in the political processes of your own country. We want you to come back home. The battle is not outside, the battle is in the changes at home.''