Cricketers may play to empty stadiums in Zimbabwe

English and Australian cricketers may have to play their World Cup matches against Zimbabwe in near-empty stadiums next month, as police block protesters who have threatened to disrupt the games.

Zimbabwe's police authorities fear "troublemakers masquerading as cricket fans" will attempt to gain admission to the grounds in Harare and Bulawayo, but sources said they would be kept away. Teargas and riot gear have been imported to quell disturbances in the six World Cup matches scheduled in Zimbabwe from 10 February, and the army will also be on standby to help deal with unrest.

Tickets for cricket matches featuring England and India were reported last week to have sold out within hours of their release. Some police officials suspect that many of the tickets were bought by protesters intending to cause disruption inside the stadiums.

A coalition of groups opposed to President Robert Mugabe, the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), has vowed to hold protests around the matches. NCA chairman Lovemore Madhuku hinted that demonstrators might seek to occupy the grounds before the matches.

"You can't stage international events in Zimbabwe, because Robert Mugabe's government is not part of the civilised world," said Mr Madhuku, an activist who has been jailed several times. Those who wanted to lend legitimacy to the regime by playing cricket in Zimbabwe "could be in for big surprises", he added.

And Welshman Ncube, secretary general of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change, said: "It's a shame that there are people who believe Zimbabwe is a safe country in which to play World Cup cricket while ordinary, peace-loving Zimbabweans are subjected to daily terror and starvation by a regime which must surely rank as the worst ever to run an African country."

Adding heat to the issue is Mr Mugabe's surprising passion for cricket, which mystifies his former comrades in the liberation struggle. Although the sport is played mainly by the white community, which he despises, he regularly attends matches.

His critics, including British and Australian leaders, have called for a boycott of the matches. In reply, he accused them of mixing sport with politics and dismissed the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, as a "product of genetically modified criminals".

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