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Australian Cricket Team Cancels Zimbabwe Tour

The Australian Cricket Board has canceled a tour of Zimbabwe scheduled for next month because of concerns about the safety of its players. Zimbabwean cricket officials say it is safe to tour the country and they hope the Australians will reconsider.

The head of the Australian Cricket Board, Bob Merriman, has denied that the decision to stay home from Zimbabwe was a political one. He said the security of the players is the board's first priority. And he said "it is now clear that traveling to Zimbabwe would compromise their safety."

But Australian politicians have put extreme pressure on the cricket board to cancel the two-test series.

Recently Australia has been increasingly critical of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Australian Prime Minister John Howard was one of three Commonwealth leaders who decided earlier this month to suspend Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth after disputed presidential elections returned Mr. Mugabe to office.

The Commonwealth observer mission condemned the poll as neither free nor fair.

But Australia's hostile relationship with Zimbabwe pre-dated the election. Relations have deteriorated so severely that Zimbabwe banned Australian journalists from covering the poll.

Citing two years of political violence and instability, the Australian foreign ministry has warned Australian citizens against visiting Zimbabwe. The cricket board says they took that warning into account when they decided to cancel the tour.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has welcomed the decision, which he calls a "sensible" one. He said he believes President Mugabe would have used the tour for what he calls "propaganda purposes."

The head of the Zimbabwe Cricket Union, Peter Chingoka, said he is "terribly disappointed" and hopes the Australians will reconsider their decision.

Mr. Chingoka said he has assured the Australians it is safe to tour.

Similar safety concerns were raised earlier this year before the English cricket team visited Zimbabwe. The British government has an even more hostile relationship with Mr. Mugabe than Australia does. But the English Cricket Board decided to go ahead with the tour, which ended without incident.

International Cricket Council President Malcolm Gray has issued a statement calling the cancellation of the tour "regrettable." He says Australia will not be penalized for calling off the series.

It is not the first time this year an international cricket tour has been canceled for security reasons. The New Zealand cricket squad called off their tour of Pakistan in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.