- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 13, 2002

HARARE, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, in his first public comments since white farmers defied a nationwide order to leave their land, said yesterday he was ready for war.

"We set ourselves an August deadline for the redistribution of land, and that deadline stands," Mr. Mugabe said at an annual ceremony to honor blacks killed in the 1970s struggle against white minority rule.

"We are keeping a watchful eye on what is happening on the farms. Those who think [former Rhodesian Prime Minister] Ian Smith can rally the white farmers for another war should think again while they have the chance."

Two thirds of the country's 4,500 white farmers were ordered to leave their land by the weekend, the culmination of a two-year campaign of state-sponsored violence against the white minority that has controlled Zimbabwean agriculture since independence in 1980.

"My mind cannot accept that I've stolen their land, which is what Mugabe says I have. I've decided to stay because I just can't believe I've been kicked off my farm," said Andy Peters.

Mr. Peters, who is defying the eviction order, has continued to live on his farm, even though the land has been occupied by militant supporters of Mr. Mugabe since February 2000.

The militants, who call themselves "veterans" of the 1970s war, have set fire to all 825 acres of Mr. Peters' corn crop, the staple diet of Zimbabwe.

He has been unable to harvest his winter wheat crop because he was prevented from farming under the eviction and formal land acquisition orders.

"It's daylight, legalized robbery," he said after listening to Mr. Mugabe's speech. "The veterans on my land have destroyed all I have. They've stolen all my tractors and equipment."

With 6 million people facing starvation, in part as a result of the land-seizure campaign, the U.S. State Department has termed the evictions "reckless and reprehensible."

Yesterday's speech marked the first time Mr. Mugabe has spoken publicly on the standoff since a midnight Thursday deadline for whites to leave some 2,900 targeted farms.

Owners of an estimated 70 percent of those farms remain in place, defying the eviction order.

Mr. Mugabe did not specify how the farmers who had defied the order would be moved off their land. Under the law, they could face up to two years in prison.

Contrary to expectations, there have been no arrests so far, although there have been numerous acts of intimidation by the vigilante veterans.

An elderly couple were forced off their farm when a group of veterans burned down their house on Sunday.

Farmers' lobby groups vowed to continue their campaign to halt the evictions despite Mr. Mugabe's tough tone. They said they believed there could be plans afoot to arrest hundreds of the farmers.

"We will proceed to take actions against the constitutionality of the land acquisitions act," said Jenni Williams, spokeswoman for Justice for Agriculture, which represents the interests of white farmers.

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