- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2000

NEW YORK Britain has assumed a leading role in the international response to Zimbabwe's land crisis, working with regional powers and scheduling a meeting in London today with three senior Zimbabwean government ministers.

British Foreign Minister Robin Cook is expected to press at his meeting with the ministers of foreign affairs, local government and commerce for protection of Zimbabwe's white farmers and for free and fair elections in the former British colony.

Britain yesterday announced an additional $57 million for the purchase of land from white farmers, whose lands have been overrun in recent weeks in a wave of killings, burnings and rapes.

Three supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change were beaten to death in Zimbabwe yesterday, making a total of 10 blacks and two whites killed in the last two months.

President Robert Mugabe's ruling party also boycotted a church-sponsored meeting called to calm the violence, to the dismay of international observers.

The European Union denied a German newspaper report that EU governments were preparing military assistance to evacuate whites from Zimbabwe if there is an escalation of the violence, in which squatters have forcibly seized dozens of white-owned farms.

Quoting the German Foreign Ministry and British military sources, the authoritative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said a crisis management headquarters had been set up and that British, German and Portuguese forces had begun logistical preparations.

But an EU spokeswoman said, "There are no military plans for helping evacuate whites from Zimbabwe."

A British diplomat described the brewing crisis as "a Zimbabwe-Zimbabwe problem, not a Zimbabwe-U.K. problem." She said the British government was satisfied for the time being to let regional leaders tackle the political issues.

"This is a matter of great concern to the region," she said, praising the "low-key" interventions from leaders in southern Africa. "We very much appreciate that support."

The United Nations is doing little to quell the violence, which has been largely directed against white farm owners and black laborers who support Zimbabwe's political opposition.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who has spoken by telephone to Mr. Mugabe several times in the last two weeks, warned yesterday that the situation could deteriorate quickly.

"We need to manage a situation which is extremely dangerous and could get worse if it is not handled properly," he said. "Obviously the situation is worrying."

But the matter is not likely to come before the U.N. Security Council, whose members are about to depart on field trips to the Democratic Republic of Congo and then Kosovo. Nor has it been broached by the high commissioner for human rights or the Geneva-based committee that watches over human rights issues.

Britain, the colonial power in the former Rhodesia until 1980, has tried to meet demands for a farm-redistribution in Zimbabwe, where the vast majority of arable land is still owned by whites. It had spent $70 million on financing land purchases until 1997, when it became clear that corruption was impeding the program.

"Britain is ready to help the government of Zimbabwe, but we are not going to appease," Mr. Cook told reporters in London yesterday. He said the latest $57 million would be released over two years as long as it was used properly.

"What that means in the immediate future is that the illegal occupations must be stopped before any land reform starts," said Mr. Cook, who warned that the money must benefit "rural poor and not public officials with the right connections."

Zimbabwe is the second largest economy in southern Africa, and its domestic turmoil could spill over into nearby nations with similar racial and economic imbalances.

The leaders of South Africa, Namibia and Mozambique met with Mr. Mugabe in Victoria Falls on Friday, and are said by Western sources to have demanded he clamp down the violence and enforce the rule of law.

Publicly, however, they issued a sympathetic statement calling upon Britain and other international donors to continue to support land reform efforts.

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