HARARE, Zimbabwe Zimbabwe’s government forced Europe’s top election observer to leave the country yesterday, deepening a dispute with the European Union that threatens to further isolate the southern African country.
Zimbabwe had refused to recognize Pierre Schori, Sweden’s ambassador to the United Nations, as head of the 150-member European observer mission for the March 9-10 presidential elections in which President Robert Mugabe faces the biggest challenge yet to his 22-year hold on power.
Zimbabwean officials only granted Mr. Schori a two-week tourist visa when he entered the country on Feb. 10. But Mr. Schori said immigration officials canceled his visa as of midnight yesterday after “the government had decided that I must leave today.”
He said he had been told Friday that he could stay in Zimbabwe as a tourist provided he refrained from making any public statements, a demand repeated by a government official in comments published yesterday.
“The purpose of my visit was to lead the EU observation mission. This, necessarily, involves making public statements and speaking to the media,” Mr. Schori told reporters before boarding a flight for London late yesterday.
On Friday, the European Union threatened to withdraw all its observers and impose sanctions against Zimbabwe if Mr. Schori was thrown out. There was no comment from EU officials yesterday, but Mr. Schori said the status of the mission would be discussed at the EU headquarters in Brussels tomorrow.
While agreeing last month to accept an EU mission, Zimbabwe said it would not accredit Mr. Schori, other Swedish observers or representatives from Zimbabwe’s former colonial ruler Britain, as well as Denmark, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands.
The government accuses those countries of bias in favor of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, whose leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, is challenging Mr. Mugabe in the vote.
Home Affairs Minister John Nkomo said the government took serious exception to Mr. Schori’s “continued political utterances,” the state-run Herald newspaper reported yesterday.
“He is obviously trying to cheat his way into being recognized as an accredited observer. He must desist from making political statements or anything remotely connected to the presidential election,” the paper quoted Mr. Nkomo as saying.
There was no comment from the government yesterday on Mr. Schori’s departure.
Mr. Schori said the EU General Affairs Committee, made up of the foreign ministers of its 15 member countries, was scheduled to discuss tomorrow a report he has submitted on the status of the mission.
Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh said Friday that if Mr. Schori was thrown out, it would “prove that Zimbabwe does not want a free and fair election.”
She said the remaining 30 election observers probably would be withdrawn as well and that sanctions including cutting off foreign aid and freezing the assets of Zimbabwe’s leaders would likely be imposed.
Mr. Schori said his departure left him with feelings “more of sorrow than anger.”
“The decision to revoke my visa provides a particularly unfortunate twist in the ongoing dispute between the Zimbabwe government and the EU over election observation,” he said.
“I have seen poor people living in shacks alongside fortified mansions. I have seen that the people want to go out and vote,” he said.
Zimbabwe has been wracked for two years by political violence that opposition supporters, human rights activists and many international officials blame on the ruling party. Mr. Mugabe’s popularity has plunged in recent years amid economic and political chaos.
In London, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Zimbabwean Embassy yesterday, calling for fairness and transparency in the elections.
The demonstrators, mainly former residents of the nation, said Mr. Mugabe was using bloody tactics to secure his re-election.