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US Accuses Mugabe Government of Fabricating Story on Embassy Employees - 2002-11-21

There was more angry U.S. criticism of Zimbabwe's government Wednesday over an incident last week in which two U.S. embassy employees and others were accosted by pro-government activists while trying to assess hunger conditions outside the capital Harare. The State Department is accusing President Robert Mugabe's government of fabricating a story that the embassy employees provoked the incident.

The relationship between the Bush administration and the Mugabe government, already troubled, appears to be deteriorating further amid conflicting accounts of what U.S. officials say was an unprovoked attack on two U.S. embassy employees and others last Friday southeast of Harare.

According to the State Department, a U.S. diplomat, a Zimbabwean employee of the U.S. embassy, a British United Nations official and a Zimbabwean serving as a guide for the group, were stopped in their car by a group of pro-Mugabe activists, so-called "war veterans", as they tried to assess hunger conditions at a farm compound about 25 kilometers from the capital.

The two Zimbabweans were said to have been severely beaten, while the others were subjected to what was termed "hostile interrogation" and their vehicle looted of personal and official items this, as Zimbabwean police ignored telephone calls for help from the U.S. diplomat.

The State Department earlier this week expressed "outrage" over the incident. But State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said Wednesday U.S. anger has been magnified by false accounts of the affair in government-controlled newspapers claiming the embassy employees provoked the confrontation.

"The assertion that the Zimbabwean government has made in these press reports that embassy staff created and filmed a scramble for food among farm workers are complete fabrications, utterly without foundation and clearly, once again betray the cynicism of the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe," he said. "The United States regards the unprovoked attack on our personnel as a serious breach of the Zimbabwe government's responsibility to safeguard diplomatic personnel in Zimbabwe. The breach cannot be hidden behind the Zimbabwe government's fabrication of a nonsensical story to justify the lawless actions of its supporters."

Spokesman Reeker said the treatment of the officials contravened the Vienna Conventions on diplomatic protocol. He suggested that United States might withdraw personnel and warn Americans against travelling to Zimbabwe unless authorities respond to U.S. complaints over the affair, and punish those responsible.

As reported by the government-run Herald newspaper, the U.S. embassy employees sparked the incident by repeatedly throwing food at farm workers from their car and filming the resulting commotion. Zimbabwe's Information Minister Jonathan Moyo had earlier accused the United States of "intrusive and interventionist" behavior concerning the regional food crisis.

The Bush administration, a persistent critic of the Harare government's human rights performance, has accused it of making the country's drought-related food problems much worse through "ill-considered" economic policies, including the confiscation of white-owned commercial farms.

Despite the political conflict, the United States has been a key supplier of food aid to Zimbabwe and other hard hit countries in the region, and spokesman Reeker said the Bush administration's decisions on aid to the people of Zimbabwe will not be affected by its attitude toward the Mugabe government.