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Top Cricket Officials Visit Zimbabwe - 2003-01-23

Top cricket officials have made a two-day visit to Zimbabwe, double-checking security for the Cricket World Cup matches scheduled to be played there next month.

The chief of the International Cricket Council, Malcolm Speed, would not say much about what he will recommend to the ICC board regarding the Zimbabwe matches.

The directors of 13 national cricket boards are scheduled to discuss the Zimbabwe issue during a special teleconference Friday. Mr. Speed said he did not want to report to them through the news media beforehand.

Their security inspection came after Britain and Australia urged their cricket teams to boycott the matches they are scheduled to play in Zimbabwe, in protest over the country's poor human rights record. The English and Australian cricket boards have decided to play the games, which are scheduled to take place in Harare and Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city.

Mr. Speed said the cricket council has made a firm commitment to the safety of its players and officials. He said if there is any real threat to their security, they will not play their matches in Zimbabwe. He said whatever decision the board makes Friday could change if the situation in Zimbabwe deteriorates before the games take place.

"There is no absolute deadline," he said. "It could be done quite late. There are obviously some practical problems with moving matches, but it could be done up until a week, five or six days before the event. That is not to say it's going to happen, so please do not read that into the answer."

Mr. Speed and Cricket World Cup executive director Ali Bacher spoke at the Johannesburg airport after ending their Zimbabwe mission. They met with the Zimbabwean police commissioner and three of his deputies to discuss their security plans for the six matches scheduled to take place in Zimbabwe.

All Mr. Speed would say was that their discussions had been "very frank," and that the Zimbabwean police chief carefully addressed every issue they put before him.

Mr. Bacher, however, was not bound by silence ahead of the ICC board meeting. He was decidedly optimistic that the Zimbabwe matches will go ahead as planned. "The food problems, the petrol problems in Zimbabwe, obviously, we are all concerned as human beings, we must be," said Ali Bacher. "But at this point in time, the ICC have made a decision that the issue is a cricketing issue, and provided it is safe for players and umpires and referees to go to Zimbabwe - or South Africa, or Kenya - World Cup cricket must continue."

Mr. Bacher said the Zimbabwean police chief wants to keep the security at the World Cup matches "low key," so the police presence is not the dominant feature of the games.

He also said the Zimbabwean police commissioner has promised to allow political demonstrations to take place during the World Cup, as long as the demonstrators follow the proper legal procedures for getting permission for their protests from the police.

During the past year, the Zimbabwean police have routinely turned down requests from civil rights activists to hold peaceful demonstrations.

Speaking to reporters in Harare, police commissioner Augustine Chihuri said his officers are "fully prepared" to deal with what he called "perpetrators of lawlessness who would like to gain political mileage" when Zimbabwe hosts the prestigious event.

Zimbabwe will not be the only issue on the table when the ICC board members meet by teleconference Friday. They will also be discussing the security situation in Kenya, where two matches are scheduled. And they will talk about what Mr. Speed called "outstanding issues" regarding participation in the World Cup by some players from India and Sri Lanka.