Zimbabwe squatters kill white farmer

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Squatters occupying white-owned land in Zimbabwe have shot a white farmer dead, farm leaders said last night.

Four neighbours who went to help him have been abducted and their fate is not known.

David Stevens was kidnapped from his occupied property near Macheke, 75 miles east of Harare, the capital, and driven into the bush where he was shot dead, said Commercial Farmers Union officials.

He is the first white farmer to be killed in the confrontation between landowners and squatters backed by President Robert Mugabe's ruling party.

A fifth neighbour, John Osborne, witnessed the shooting of Mr Stevens, the farmers officials said. He was beaten up by Mr Stevens' attackers and was being treated in a hospital in Marondera.

Up to 60 rural white families had last night fled their homes after the murder of Mr Stevens and the disappearance of their neighbours. Witnesses said that the missing four were abducted by police.

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," she said.

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.

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.

Earlier, former guerrillas in the war that led to majority rule in Zimbabwe vowed to continue their takeovers of white-owned farms, defying a High Court ruling.

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.