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Mugabe's tone gets shriller

BINDURA (ZIMBABWE), APRIL. 8. The Zimbabwean President, Mr. Robert Mugabe heaped further pressure on the country's embattled white farmers on Friday by renewing his support for thousands of squatters and broadening his attack to cover the entire white community.

His remarks came after a violent attack on an elderly white farmer and his wife left them both in hospital and coincided with the invasion of five more properties, which brought the total seized to 975. Addressing a rally of his ruling Zanu-PF Party in Bindura, 50 miles north of Harare, Mr. Mugabe dashed hopes that he might defuse the crisis on white farms by ordering the squatters home, following Thursday's vote in Parliament to remove the right to compensation for land seizures.

Mr. Mugabe told about 1,500 supporters: ``Those who have invaded the farms, they are going to stay. I support them. We will not remove them.'' He was noticeably more aggressive when he spoke in the Shona language than when he spoke later in English. In a furious attack on white farmers, he referred to them as mabhunu, a derogatory term for whites. ``If you cannot accept rule by blacks, you can just leave,'' he said. ``No one will stop you from leaving. All the doors are open.'' He listed all the border crossings through which whites could flee Zimbabwe and added: ``If you want to have a plane, we can accompany you to Harare airport.''

Mr. Mugabe placed the onus on white farmers to avoid any violent clashes with squatters. ``Let farmers not create unnecessary circumstances that might lead to them being hurt,'' he said, conceding that ``violent incidents'' had occurred but saying these had been caused by ``farmers resisting'' squatters.

Mr. Mugabe's remarks drew a furious response and came hours after a brutal attack on Mr. and Mrs. Island-Jones in the early hours of Friday morning. The white couple, in their seventies, were awoken by intruders on their smallholding near Marondera, 60 miles east of Harare. Fearing that his cattle were about to be slaughtered, Mr. Island-Jones ventured outside with a handgun. He was ambushed and would have been shot with his own gun if his attackers had been able to remove the safety catch.

Instead, they pistol-whipped him before breaking into his home where they set upon Mrs. Island-Jones, leaving her severely injured. The couple were later taken to hospital where Mrs. Island-Jones was in a ``very serious'' condition. Michelle Conner, a farmer near Caroi, said: ``Mugabe is so unstable that it really worries me. He could just wake up in the morning and decide to ethnically cleanse us. I'm not leaving - we just have to remain determined and see this through - but this man is just so frightening.''

Another farmer, Rob Brown, from Arcturus, said: ``We stayed to build Zimbabwe and make it into a success. We care about this country, but look what he says about us.'' He urged the British Government to reconsider any talks with Mr. Mugabe because ``it may not be worth the bother''.

Commentators see the farm invasions and the intensified attacks on whites as a central part of Mr. Mugabe's strategy to win next month's parliamentary election. Dr. Iden Wetherell, a commentator from Zimbabwe Independent, said: ``He is trying to position himself as the scourge of the whites... but he is totally misjudging the public mood. Mugabe has actually managed to create sympathy for white farmers. Zimbabweans are repelled by his crass racism and no one likes a bully.''

Meanwhile, the British Foreign Office called the vote allowing Zimbabwe's Government to seize land from white farmers without compensation a ``serious step backwards''. The statement came a day after it had resolutely refused to issue any comment on the issue. The reversal of its policy of silence hinted at considerable confusion within Whitehall over how to react to Mr. Mugabe's latest provocation.

- @ Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2000.

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