Zimbabwe: New moves to airlift 25,000 Britons

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The Independent Online

As President Robert Mugabe's campaign of terror against white farmers continued yesterday, British and European diplomats in Harare were holding secret talks for possible evacuation of up to 25,000 UK nationals.

Amid growing lawlessness and a crackdown on independent journalists, the talks were held to update a contingency plan to help UK nationals and other foreigners escape should their lives be endangered.

"Yes, it is true that we have a plan in place to help our citizens in Zimbabwe, but I cannot disclose the details," Richard Lindsay, a diplomat at the British High Commission in Harare, told The Independent.

Mr Lindsay dismissed the rumour sweeping Harare that British troops are being deployed in neighbouring southern Africa countries to aid an evacuation. "We have no troops massed around the borders of Zimbabwe at all," he said.

The EU's contingency plans for a large-scale evacuation provides for an armoured convoy to protect refugees travelling east into Mozambique and south through the border town of Beitbridge into South Africa. The plans will only be activated if conditions rapidly deteriorate and the lives of British and other European citizens are endangered.

The most likely assembly points are Harare, Bulawayo, and Mutare in the eastern highlands, all of which are linked by road with Mozambique's main port, Beira.

Such a massive operation is likely to be attempted only as a last resort. If violence continues to spread, diplomats are initially expected to help inform and advise their nationals of the safest course of action.

Belgium, which took over the rotating presidency of the EU last month, said yesterday that its diplomats have held at least one meeting to review the situation on the ground and update contingency planning.

A Belgian foreign ministry spokesman described the evacuation plan as 'operational', although he added that the large number of EU nationals made it impossible to envisage the imminent departure of the European population. However, he said, it was "normal when a situation worsens in a specific country that the EU embassies would give particular attention to that issue".

In London a foreign office spokesman said: "We really don't think we've reached the stage where large-scale evacuations are in order."

Some 25,000 British nationals are registered with the High Commission, although there may be as many as 40,000 in the country. Other embassies considering evacuation include Canada, which has 500 citizens, and Australia, which has 400. Belgium says only 230 of its nationals are in the country.

As the situation worsened, pressure mounted on the British Government to lead efforts to stop President Robert Mugabe from attending the Commonwealth summit in Brisbane, Australia, in October.

Zimbabwe has made headlines in the international media in the past week over the arrest of 22 white farmers in Chinhoyi after their clashes with illegal settlers on their farms.

The arrests were followed by an orgy of looting by rowdy ruling Zanu-PF party supporters. The Commercial Farmers' Union says nearly $200m worth of property was either looted or destroyed around the Chinhoyi area in Mashonaland, West Province. Police claim that most of the looters were farm workers, but farmers deny this.

Mugabe is also threatened with the possible loss of aid and even sanctions by the EU, which gave him 60 days from June to restore law and order and guarantee that next year's elections would be fair.