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US Outraged Over Zimbabwe Diplomatic Incident

The United States is expressing outrage over an incident Thursday in which Zimbabwean security forces detained U.S. and British diplomats trying to visit victims of political violence. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calls the situation grave and says the United States will raise the matter in the U.N. Security Council. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

U.S. officials are calling the latest incident outrageous and unacceptable, but they say American diplomats will remain in Zimbabwe despite the harassment to support citizens of that country struggling for democracy.

In what was described here as a premeditated act, about 40 Zimbabwean police, intelligence agents and others stopped a convoy of U.S. and British diplomats north of the capital, threatening the officials, beating one of their local drivers, and slashing vehicle tires.

Five American diplomats and two local staff members were detained. Though they were later released, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the incident - the second of its kind in as many months - will not be forgotten.

He said the United States protested to officials in Harare, will seek out and raise the issue with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's delegation at the world food conference in Rome, and will take it up in the U.N. Security Council.

At a joint press event with Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, Secretary of State Rice called the situation in Zimbabwe ahead of a crucial presidential runoff election quite difficult and grave. But she said this is not the time to withdraw the U.S. diplomatic presence in Harare.

"We need our diplomats to be able to try and help the international community and the African states assure some modicum of civility in those elections, and some modicum of fairness in those elections," said Rice. "And so I think it's important that we maintain a presence there, and that we be able to do our work on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe, who I believe desperately want to have a free and fair election runoff."

Tensions have been mounting between the Mugabe government and foreign diplomats, especially those from Britain and the United States who have complained about government moves against the opposition in advance of the June 27 election.

Mr. Mugabe is facing opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the run-off. The United States called Mr. Tsvangirai's brief detention on Wednesday deeply disturbing.

In London, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the kind of intimidation seen this week is suffered daily by Zimbabweans, especially those working with the opposition.

He said it underlines the need for the international community, and especially Zimbabwe's neighbors, to monitor the run-off vote:

"The argument today in Zimbabwe is not between Zimbabwe and Britain, it's about two different visions for the future of Zimbabwe," Miliband said. "And it's very important that the international community plays its role by assuring that for the election on June 27th, there are international monitors, properly accredited who are able to insure that despite the ravages in Zimbabwe at the moment, there is an election that allows the democratic will of the Zimbabwean people to be heard loud and to be heard clear."

President Mugabe, who has run Zimbabwe since independence, has accused foreign powers and Britain in particular of interfering in his country's internal affairs, and conspiring with the opposition to restore colonial rule.

Both the United States and European Union have imposed travel and financial sanctions against Mr. Mugabe and his inner circle. The Zimbabwean leader was able to visit Rome this week, skirting the EU travel ban, because he is attending a U.N. function.