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A RUMOUR that the United States intends to grant all foreigners on its soil citizenship or a work permit on 1 January has prompted a rush of visa applications from Zambians, including some who are selling their homes in anticipation of emigrating to the US.

Jane Bwalya was a waitress at a top hotel in the Zambian capital, Lusaka. But she suddenly ditched her job to try to get a visa for the US.

As part of his civil service retirement package, Mangani Banda received a house in a plush part of Lusaka. But Banda has sold the house to an estate agent for a song so that he could relocate to the US with his family of three.

Bwalya and Banda have fallen victim to a scam, which some say was started by unscrupulous estate agents eager to cash in on lower house prices.

The rumour has it that at the dawn of the new millennium, every Zambian - in fact every foreigner - in the US would get free citizenship, or at least a green card.

As a result, droves of Zambians have headed to the American embassy here, ignoring announcements from US officials telling everybody that the story is unfounded.

An embassy official said staff were now handling more than 1,000 visa applications a day and had extended working hours to deal with the rush.