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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 May 2006, 14:53 GMT 15:53 UK
Mugabe defends Malawi road naming
President Mugabe opens the road
Malawi and Zimbabwe have close ties
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has cut the ribbon on a major road named after him in Malawi.

He said local human rights groups who opposed honouring him in this way were "working for white masters".

Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika hailed Mr Mugabe as a "true son of Africa" at a lavish ceremony surrounded by tight security to deter protests.

The road from Malawi to Mozambique used funds from the European Union, which has put a travel ban on Mr Mugabe.

The EU and the US have imposed sanctions on Mr Mugabe and his associates, saying that elections since 2000 had been marred by fraud and violence against the opposition.

It would be a serious oversight to decorate and honour a leader who is classified as an outright dictator
Malawi opposition leader Kamlepo Kalua

On his arrival in Malawi, President Mugabe said he was following in the footsteps of great African "freedom fighters", such as former Malawi President Kamuzu Banda and Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah.

Banda was one of the few African leaders to have good relations with South Africa's apartheid government and was accused of widespread human rights abuses.

"Mugabe is 200% African, he does not belong in Europe, he is not British, he is not American," Mr Mugabe said at the road's naming ceremony.

'True democrat'

Desmond Kaunda, chairman of the Council for Non-Governmental Organisations, said Malawi should not be honouring Mr Mugabe.

"The enjoyment of civil liberties in Zimbabwe is seriously eroded by the existence of restrictive legislation... and the curtailment of civil liberties," he told Reuters news agency.

Robert Mugabe Highway
Robert Mugabe Highway was renovated using EU funds
Earlier, President Mutharika praised Mr Mugabe as a "true democrat".

"How can anybody say Mugabe is a sworn enemy of democracy?" he asked

"The first known government of national unity in Africa was initiated by Robert Mugabe in 1980."

Mr Mutharika's wife, Ethel, is Zimbabwean.

The BBC's Raphael Tenthani found that most patrons of a bar on the Midima Highway had nothing against the road's new name: Robert Mugabe Highway.

"We need to honour African leaders," one man said.

"Mugabe needs to be honoured as a freedom fighter," said another.

'Dictator'

The road, linking Blantyre to Mozambique and its Indian Ocean ports, is a route for trade in and out of Malawi and for foreign food aid.

Protesters in South Africa
Millions of Zimbabweans have fled the country in recent years

It was for this reason that the EU funded its multi-million dollar expansion.

The BBC's David Bamford says the renaming after President Mugabe has created a furore at the EU headquarters in Brussels as well as among Malawian organisations.

Opposition Malawi Democratic Party leader Kamlepo Kalua also said it would be inappropriate to honour the Zimbabwean leader personally.

"It would be a serious oversight to decorate and honour a leader who is classified as an outright dictator," he told the Malawian Sunday Times.

"We can't have a leader who is demolishing people's houses without giving alternatives, using the intelligence and the army to arrest political opponents, honoured here."

Mr Kalua has since been arrested for his role in an alleged plot by Vice-President Cassim Chilumpha to topple President Mutahrika.

The Malawi government says the naming was in gratitude for Zimbabwe's job opportunities for Malawian workers.

However, many thousands of farm workers who have lost their jobs in Zimbabwe's controversial land reform programme are of Malawian origin.

Mr Mugabe, in power since 1980, last year oversaw an urban demolition campaign in which 700,000 people lost their homes, according to the United Nations, and many of those left homeless were dumped in rural areas.




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