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Last Updated: Friday, 21 April 2006, 16:53 GMT 17:53 UK
Zimbabwe 'asks farmers to return'
White farmer in Zimbabwe
Many farms were wrecked when occupied by government supporters
Zimbabwe's white farmers say they have been invited to apply for land - in an apparent U-turn by the government which has seized their land.

All but 300 of the 4,000 white farmers have been forced off their land since President Robert Mugabe started his "fast-track" land reform in 2000.

A farmers' leader says some 200 applications have already been made and more are coming in.

Critics say the reforms have devastated the economy and led to massive hunger.

Foreign currency

Much of the formerly white-owned land is no longer being productively used - either because the beneficiaries have no experience of farming or they lack finance and tools.

Many farms were wrecked when they were invaded by government supporters.

President Robert Mugabe
President Mugabe this month celebrated 26 years in power
The government has admitted that the exercise has been beset by corruption.

But Mr Mugabe blames Zimbabwe's economic problems on a plot by Western countries to topple him.

"There is an understanding that our members want to play a significant role in agriculture production, food security and generation of foreign currency for the country," Trevor Gifford, Commercial Farmers' Union vice-president told Reuters news agency.

"It is within this context that we were invited to submit the applications and I do know that instructions have been given to provincial land committees to process the applications and we are now awaiting responses," he said.

'No going back'

Didymus Mutasa, the minister in charge of land reform, could not be reached for comment.

But on Wednesday he said: "There is definitely no going back on our policy on land."

He also said that 99-year leases for commercial farms would be distributed by June, which he hoped would lead to higher agricultural output.

Earlier this year, Agriculture Minister Joseph Made told the BBC News website that any Zimbabwean was free to apply for land, whether white or black, as long as they used it.

Under colonial rule, the best agricultural land was reserved for whites - a policy which Mr Mugabe says he is trying to reverse.

But many white-owned farms were highly mechanised, productive businesses which formed the backbone of the economy.

The opposition says Mr Mugabe is using the land to buy votes.

Listen to Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga

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