Zimbabwe holding a 'financial pistol to UK's head'

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The Independent Online

Zimbabwe IS trying to "put a pistol to Britain's head'' through the continued occupation of some 400 white-owned commercial farms, the Foreign Office Minister, Peter Hain, said yesterday.

In a new attack in the run-up to Zimbabwe's parliamentary elections, now due in May, Mr Hain hit back at attempts by the government of President Robert Mugabe to blame white farmers and Britain for the country's 20-year-old land crisis. Mr Hain said: "This is an attempt to... say 'hand over the money'. We're not prepared to do that. Half the land that has been distributed so far by the government has gone to government cronies. Most of it is not being farmed properly."

The ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) has staged demonstrations at 600 commercial farms and has occupied nearly 400 of them since the party lost a referendum last month which called on Britain to compensate commercial farmers for land taken for the resettlement of landless peasants.

Defeat in the referendum, which was designed to reinforce President Mugabe's power, was the greatest setback for Zanu-PF since the end of white rule 20 years ago. It also heralded the emergence of a popular new opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Diplomatic relations with Britain, the former colonial master of Rhodesia, have hit an all-time low since the referendum and amid a deepening economic crisis.

At the end of white rule, in 1980, Britain helped draw up a constitution to pacify white settler descendants and provide compensation. But it pulled the plug on the scheme in 1988, claiming resettlement schemes were not benefiting the poor.

Before the elections in May President Mugabe wants to push through a constitutional amendment to legitimise the land grab. The country's police have appealed against a High Court order to remove those occupying the 400 farms.

Mr Hain said: "We will not take part in delivering the money against some kind of ultimatum when we know farm production will be cut [and] the Zimbabwean economy... hit.''