English and Australian cricketers due to play World Cup matches in Zimbabwe next month – and the officials, journalists and fans who accompany them – face the threat of violent demonstrations, heavy-handed security and chaos caused by the country's economic collapse.
Zimbabwean opposition groups, angry at the prestige that President Robert Mugabe will gain from the presence of international cricket teams, have formed an umbrella group called Organised Resistance, and are threatening to disrupt the matches if they go ahead.
"Should the World Cup come to Zimbabwe, it will present a useful opportunity to expose and highlight human rights abuses – in particular, the partisan distribution of food aid," Organised Resistance said in a statement.
"The media coverage, and the fact that foreign journalists and world television will be focusing on Zimbabwe, means our state-sponsored victimisation will once again become front-page news around the world," the group added. "It is likely that mass demonstrations will be co-ordinated to take advantage of the media event of the World Cup."
If the cricketers go to Zimbabwe, they will have ignored pressure for a boycott from the British and Australian governments. Ironically, Mr Mugabe himself had to be talked out of banning the two sides. Not only had he been itching to retaliate against London and Canberra, Zimbabwe government sources said, he believed the influx of British and Australian cricketers and fans would provide an opportunity for MI6 to infiltrate agents with orders to assassinate him.
Tony Blair and other "Western detractors" had hoped Mr Mugabe would lose the presidential election last March. Since those hopes were dashed, the sources said, Mr Mugabe had become convinced that Tony Blair and his allies were working with the local opposition to kill him. But the President's colleagues persuaded him that the cricketers had to be admitted to avoid loss of face.
It was reported yesterday that action might be taken against the Zimbabwean team, most of whom are white, if they agreed to a compromise proposal to play their England and Australia matches in South Africa. Such action might lead to the players losing their Zimbabwean passports and being prevented from leaving the country.
To appease Mr Mugabe, his ministers promised the touring parties would be swamped in security, with at least three agents of the Central Intelligence Organisation assigned to every player and official to check their movements. Their rooms could also be bugged and their baggage searched.
Apart from the risk of being caught up in violence, visiting cricketers and their followers will face problems caused by Zimbabwe's economic meltdown. Supermarket shelves are empty and a crippling fuel shortage will affect the movement of cricket fans between the two main cities, Harare and Bulawayo, which are nearly 300 miles apart.
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