Friday, October 14, 2005

Zimbabwean security guards detained U.S. Ambassador Christopher Dell for more than an hour earlier this week, saying yesterday he trespassed in a restricted zone protecting the residence of President Robert Mugabe.

Zimbabwe’s Foreign Ministry first apologized for the arrest, but then issued an official letter of protest for what it called Mr. Dell’s “flagrant disregard” of local security laws.

“The ambassador must consider himself very lucky that he is dealing with a professional army that the Zimbabwe National Army is,” Information and Publicity Secretary George Charamba said in a statement carried by Zimbabwe’s state-run press.

“Elsewhere, and definitely in America, he would have been a dead man. His adventure is really dangerous,” he added.

The incident adds to an already deteriorating relationship between the Bush administration and the Mugabe government.

The arrest at the National Botanical Gardens, a popular tourist draw in the center of Harare, the capital city, occurred Monday, but Zimbabwe state television only revealed the detention late Thursday.

U.S. officials yesterday chose to take the high road, noting that Zimbabwe officials had issued two separate apologies for the arrest. U.S. officials said they were told the security guards who accosted Mr. Dell were not familiar with diplomatic protocol.

“We felt the case was closed after the first apologies,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said. “Then [the Zimbabwe government] chose to make a media issue out of it. But the fact of the matter is that they apologized and we consider it closed.”

As described by both Mr. Ereli and embassy officials in Harare, Mr. Dell, a career diplomat, inadvertently wandered into a restricted part of the grounds. They said the area was poorly marked.

The embassy said Mr. Dell accepted apologies from two senior Zimbabwean foreign affairs officials, including the government’s chief of protocol, and said the diplomat was “surprised” to learn of the subsequent protest note.

The Bush administration has been harshly critical of Mr. Mugabe, saying the 81-year-old leader has become increasingly dictatorial while his economic policies have impoverished the country and decimated some of Africa’s most fertile and productive lands.

U.S. officials said last month they were considering extending the already wide-ranging sanctions on the Mugabe regime to include a travel ban for top officials and their relatives.

Mr. Mugabe has criticized both the United States and Britain, asserting that Mr. Bush is trying to overthrow him. The state-owned press reported that Mr. Dell in his 2004 Senate confirmation hearings said he supported a “regime change” in Harare, an accusation the ambassador fiercely denied.

In the official Zimbabwean version of Monday’s events, Mr. Dell “deliberately ignored” signs barring entry to the security zone in an action “clearly intended to provoke an unwarranted diplomatic incident.”

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer, who was in neighboring South Africa yesterday, said she had not heard the details of the incident but that it was “extraordinary” for a country to arrest an accredited ambassador.

“If that has happened, it certainly speaks to a lack of respect both for diplomatic norms as well as for the relationship that the United States is trying to build to the people and country of Zimbabwe,” she told Reuters news agency.

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