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Gary Younge
Police step in as farm invasions continue

In a weekend of mixed signals, a handful of farm occupations were overshadowed by deals between self-styled war veterans and farmers that allowed squatters to stay on land in return for peace and the promise that farmers would not harbour activists for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

Tension eased after a southern African summit at Victoria Falls on Friday appeared to come up with a formula for defusing the crisis. Leaders from South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia and Namibia apparently persuaded the Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe, to stop endorsing the farm occupations and hold elections while pushing Britain to fulfil its commitment to help fund land redistribution.

Delegates from the British and Zimbabwean governments are to meet in London on Thursday to discuss the issue, with both Britain and the US expected to help fund the purchase of white-owned land for distribution to black peasant farmers.

Robin Cook, the foreign secretary, said the money would be given on condition that peace prevailed and that the land went to the poor.

"The starting point for our discussions will be the offer we made in 1998 to help fund a programme of land reform," he said. "But it has to be a programme that is within the rule of law and helps the rural poor. And the occupations have to stop."

The MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, welcomed the prospect of a land redistribution programme but warned that the international community should not use the apparent breakthrough to condone Mr Mugabe's tactics.

He told a rally on Saturday: "We need an orderly and fair distribution of land. We have no problem with that. But if they are endorsing Mugabe's lawlessness then we have a serious problem."

Hopes that the Easter weekend would pass peacefully were boosted when white farmers returned to the Macheke area, where the farmer David Stevens was killed the previous weekend. Elsewhere police moved on to some farms to prevent squatters causing damage to property or hurting the owners. Previously they simply looked on as the attacks took place, claiming that the occupations were a political matter.

On Saturday opposition rallies of several hundred people were held around the capital, Harare, without incident, in contrast to just a few weeks ago when MDC demonstrators were attacked by supporters of Zanu-PF, the ruling party.

But the situation remained volatile. On Saturday night there was a bomb attack on an opposition newspaper, the Daily News, in Harare. No one was hurt but the blast followed a death threat to the editor.

Meanwhile, sporadic land occupations continued. War veterans armed with guns and clubs invaded another white-owned farm yesterday, trapping the farm manager and two young women.

The Forresters farm in the Mvurwi area, about 60 miles north of Harare, was occupied by about 200 veterans, a member of a local farm support group said.

The group later reported that the crowd on the farm, one of the world's biggest tobacco operations, had swelled to about 700 and included labourers from nearby farms.

It said the farm manager Duncan Hamilton, briefly detained outside the farmhouse, had been sent inside to join the women. Journalists who tried to approach were turned back by the squatters and told not to return. Police put up roadblocks but took no further action.

On Saturday another white farmer north-east of Harare reported that 60 people armed with chains and wooden planks had occupied his property and assaulted him and a colleague.

Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party also stepped up its anti-white, anti-foreign rhetoric. In a full- page advertisement in yesterday's Standard newspaper the party told Zimbabweans: "Don't throw away that power [won through independence] by surrendering it to unrepentant racial and foreign interests with your hands open in the air." It was referring to the raised open palm, the symbol of the MDC.

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