- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 1, 2009

CHINHOYI, Zimbabwe (AP) | Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe said Saturday that land seizures would continue, and he called for the last of the country’s white farmers to leave.

Mr. Mugabe was addressing supporters at a celebration marking his 85th birthday in Chinhoyi, 60 miles northwest of Harare.

“Land distribution will continue. It will not stop,” Mr. Mugabe said. “The few remaining white farmers should quickly vacate their farms as they have no place there.”

Mr. Mugabe was capitalizing on what has long been a sensitive issue in Zimbabwe and other nations in the region: the unjust division of land between whites and blacks that is a legacy of colonialism and white minority rule. Dozens of the several hundred white farmers left in Zimbabwe are currently challenging the right of the government to confiscate their land before a regional tribunal of Africa judges.

The birthday celebration, which reportedly cost $250,000, was held as Zimbabwe’s new unity government failed to secure financial aid to rescue the country’s collapsed economy.

Zimbabwe faces the world’s highest official inflation rate, a hunger crisis and a cholera epidemic that has killed nearly 4,000 people since August.

Mr. Mugabe, who turned 85 on Feb. 21, has ruled Zimbabwe since its independence from Britain in 1980. He was recently forced to relax his grip on power and enter a coalition government with longtime rival Morgan Tsvangirai, who was made prime minister.

But the first few weeks of the unity government have been marred by squabbles over key positions and the continued arrest of political activists, leaving some doubting how much power Mr. Mugabe is prepared to relinquish.

“I am still in control and hold executive authority, so nothing much has changed,” Mr. Mugabe told a crowd of about 2,000.

There has been a recent upsurge in reported “invasions” of white-owned farms, with one support group saying at least 40 white farmers have been forced off their land since January.

Last year, a regional court ruled that 78 white Zimbabweans could keep their farms, saying the government’s landgrab policy was racially motivated.

On Saturday, Mr. Mugabe called the ruling “nonsense” and said it was of “no consequence.”

“We have our own laws which govern our own land issues,” he said.

Critics blame Zimbabwe’s economic collapse on Mr. Mugabe and his land reforms that saw white-owned farms seized and given to his cronies, rather than going to impoverished blacks as promised.

Many have criticized Mr. Mugabe for having lavish birthday celebrations while his beleaguered people die from disease and hunger. One in 10 Zimbabwean children will die before their fifth birthday, and most of their mothers won’t even live to half Mr. Mugabe’s age, the charity Save the Children said last week.

A smiling Mr. Mugabe was greeted by cheers and shouts of “long live our president,” as he arrived at the town’s university hall on Saturday.

Dressed in a beige suit and red scarf, he released a bunch of balloons into the air and joked with school children as he posed for photographers.

Mr. Tsvangirai decided not to attend the celebration, as he considered the event a “private” affair of Mr. Mugabe’s party, his spokesman James Maridadi said.

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