- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2000

HARARE, Zimbabwe A vacation with the in-laws turned into a nightmare this week for British diplomat Nick Syrett when he was attacked by thugs who mistook him for his brother-in-law, a political organizer for the main party opposing President Robert Mugabe in upcoming elections.
The incident, in which Mr. Syrett was beaten unconscious, came in a week that saw four new politically related deaths and the murder of another white farmer, apparently by thieves.
About 50 supporters of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) carried out the attack on Mr. Syrett, who had just completed a posting as political first secretary to the British Embassy in Colombia.
The diplomat was vacationing with the family of his Zimbabwe-born wife, Nina, and twin 2-year-olds on a farm near the town of Mvurwi, about 60 miles north of Harare. When the attackers arrived, they demanded to see the farm's owner, Hugo Firks.
"He just got caught up in the middle of it. They were actually after me because of my involvement with [the Movement for Democratic Change]," Mr. Firks, a small-time MDC organizer, said in Harare.
Mr. Firks said the attackers badly beat two garden workers while another escaped by swimming across an irrigation pond. Mr. Syrett was beaten with a rubber baton and knocked unconscious, but managed to get up after about 10 seconds.
Mr. Syrett's wife and children and other visitors from Britain were held for several hours until the gang was given three impala from Mr. Firks' private game reserve.
Mr. Firks said the beasts were to be used for a late-night feast "pungwe session" at which farm workers have been forced to sing, dance, chant ZANU-PF slogans, denounce the MDC and, at times, participate in the beating of suspected MDC supporters.
"They all came out to get me. Having issued threats against me, they don't come out without some intention to hurt you. They said they had come for a 'special reason,' " Mr. Firks said. "They have something built up in their heads that I am some kind of major player."
Mr. Firks said he and other commercial farmers had been assisting the MDC.
"At the time, we all believed we were allowed to give our opinion in support of the opposition. A whole group of us helped organize rallies. Until [white farmer] Dave Stevens was killed, then we were all reminded what kind of regime we live under. We all had to shut up, basically."
Zimbabwe Information Minister Chen Chimutengwende said he could not comment on the incident "unless I get a full story about it and I know officially it happened."
"We have always appealed against violence and the police are doing their best to arrest people involved," he said.
Donald Anderson, chairman of the British Parliament's Foreign Affairs Select Committee, questioned Mr. Syrett's judgment in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp.
"It's puzzling that a diplomat … chooses to go on holiday with his wife and young family, taking his children to a farm where his brother-in-law, who is linked to the opposition, has apparently vacated that farm because of the danger," Mr. Anderson said.
Mr. Firks said the farm had been invaded about a month earlier and he had subsequently visited it only during the day. But, he said, "This is where [Mr. Syrett] has always come for holidays. My sister loves to come and he thought he is not a target or anything."
Tensions also boiled over this week within the ruling party when a party organizer was shot dead at the start of the week by supporters of a rival ZANU-PF candidate. Another ruling-party supporter died Monday in the eastern province of Manicaland after a beating from men in ZANU-PF T-shirts.
ZANU-PF militants are attempting to intimidate opposition supporters in advance of parliamentary elections later this month.
Zimbabwean police launched a manhunt Thursday for the killer of white farmer Tony Oates, who shot dead one of two intruders at his farm before he was mortally wounded. Mr. Oates was the fifth white farmer to die since veterans of the 1970s liberation war began invading more than 1,000 of the country's 4,500 white-owned commercial farms.
Police said the death appeared to be unconnected with the invasions, but farm-union officials blamed the incident on the government's failure to maintain law and order.

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