Now the world must act on Zimbabwe

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The decision of Robert Mugabe's government to nationalise all remaining productive land is new evidence that Zimbabwe is hurtling towards the point of no return.

The decision of Robert Mugabe's government to nationalise all remaining productive land is new evidence that Zimbabwe is hurtling towards the point of no return. This is the latest chapter of a land seizure policy motivated not, as Mr Mugabe claims, by a desire to right the legacies of colonial-era injustice, but by the octogenarian president's determination to stamp out any challenge to his power.

The disastrous repercussions have already gone well beyond the expulsion of 4,500 white farmers from the best land. Once a dynamic economy and big grain exporter, Zimbabwe now has the highest reliance on international food aid in Africa. The new measures will only hasten the flight of what foreign investment remains, bring closer complete economic collapse, and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.

Yet signs of a fresh campaign of violent political repression were already present, and they have not yet prompted the kind of international intervention that will be required if Mr Mugabe's war on his own people is to be halted.

The ruling party used brutal intimidation last month to secure an implausible by-election victory in a constituency representing the minority Ndbele people. It also crushed the last remaining independent newspaper and moved to censor e-mail. It all bodes ill indeed as the 2005 general elections approach.

Beyond limited EU sanctions targeted at a handful of the regime's biggest gangsters, however, the international response to Zimbabwe's tragedy has been utterly ineffectual. Tony Blair's government seems paralysed by the fear that anything he says will be depicted in Harare as the continuation of a colonial struggle. Frankly, that hardly matters any more. Mr Mugabe uses every opportunity to vilify Britain as an imperialist plotter, regardless.

South Africa could make a real difference by withdrawing support. So far, however, President Mbeki seems more concerned with maintaining a spurious African solidarity than with the plight of the Zimbabwean people. Europe and the US must exert pressure on him to pull the plug, and demand a peaceful handover of power before it is too late.

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