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Zimbabwe Squatters Not Evicted

March 24, 2000

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) _ Police in Zimbabwe said Friday they cannot evict ex-guerrillas and other squatters illegally camped on white-owned farms without risking bloodshed.

In a statement to the High Court in Harare, Deputy Police Commissioner Godwin Matanga said land occupations were ``politically charged″ and ``ready to explode if not handled with great care and political astuteness.″

Matanga asked the court to revise its March 17 ruling, which ordered police to evict the squatters by March 21 or arrest them if they refused to leave the farms. Police did neither.

``Police are not prepared to undertake an intervention which in their view might risk some of the members of the (farmers) being killed,″ Matanga said in documents submitted to the High Court. ``As long as demonstrations remain peaceful, police should keep their distance.″

To date, the police have done just that, despite an eviction order granted by Judge Paddington Garwe in response to a complaint by the Commercial Farmers’ Union, which represents about 4,000 white farmers.

Since Feb. 19, veterans of the bush war that led to independence in 1980 and other squatters armed with spears, axes, clubs and guns have staked out claims on 731 white-owned farms, and set up camps on more than 400 of them.

Matanga argued that police should remain on hand _ but not intervene _ until a solution can found to the squatters’ protests about inequalities in land ownership.

Some 4,000 white farmers own about a third of the country’s productive land. About 1.5 million black families live on the rest.

The farmers’ group has called on the police to respect the judge’s order, and is reportedly preparing a request for a contempt-of-court order against President Robert Mugabe, top police officials and a leader of the squatters movement.

Farmers say the situation has already become violent.

Farmer Schalk Nel was charged with attempted murder after retaliating against squatters in scuffles near the northwestern farming center of Karoi on Thursday, said lawyer Alex Masterson.

Nel and his workers had fought off advancing squatters. No firearms were used.

The fight was one of several clashes in recent days where farm workers turned against squatters in an effort to protect their jobs, union leaders said. No serious injuries have been reported.

``Things have become very tense,″ said Terry Smit, another Karoi farmer. The squatters ``are rabid, they are screaming racial abuse.″

Mugabe’s popularity has slumped sharply as Zimbabwe suffers from its worst economic crisis since the country, formerly known as Rhodesia, gained independence from Britain in 1980.

Farmers say the ruling party is allowing squatters to remain on farms to garner support ahead of anticipated parliamentary elections.

Update hourly