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Page last updated at 17:59 GMT, Thursday, 5 June 2008 18:59 UK

Diplomat convoy held in Zimbabwe

James McGee (file)
Ambassador James McGee described the incident as extremely serious

Police in Zimbabwe detained US and UK diplomats for several hours as they investigated political violence there, US ambassador James McGee has said.

Mr McGee told the BBC there had earlier been a bid to force their convoy off the road in the town of Bindura when they refused to go to a police station.

He said their tyres were also slashed and a Zimbabwean driver beaten up.

The US and UK governments denounced the incident and demanded an explanation from the Zimbabwean authorities.

Earlier, the South African government said Zimbabwe's main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, had been released by the police on Wednesday after the intervention of President Thabo Mbeki.

A spokesman for Mr Mbeki, Mukoni Ratshitanga, told the BBC that Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) had contacted the president "to inform him about the arrest".

"Immediately thereafter, President Mbeki contacted the Zimbabwean government and appealed to them to release Mr Tsvangirai," he said.

Threats

Mr McGee told the BBC that five US embassy officials, two local staff, and four officials from the UK High Commission had been in Bindura, 80km (50 miles) north of Harare, when they were stopped by police.

"I think that it gives us a window into the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans, because this sort of intimidation is something that is suffered daily
David Miliband
UK Foreign Secretary

When they refused to go to a local police station and drove away, they were chased, he said. Later at a roadblock nearby, police slashed their tyres.

The ambassador said so-called war veterans allied to the government had tried to forcibly remove the diplomats from the vehicles and, when they refused, had stolen a camera and a satellite telephone.

"The war veterans threatened to burn the vehicles with the people inside unless they removed themselves from the vehicle," he said.

A Zimbabwean driver working with an US embassy security official was also beaten up by the group, he added.

A police spokesman, Wayne Bvudzijena, insisted its officers had merely been trying to rescue the diplomats from a dangerous mob.

"It's unfortunate when diplomats behave like criminals and distort information," he told the Associated Press. "It is a very sad situation."

'Lawless country'

Mr McGee described the incident as extremely serious and a violation of all diplomatic protocols, and that his government would raise it at the very highest levels with the Zimbabwean authorities.

Two members of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) who say they were beaten by government supporters in Masvingo (3 May 2008)
The MDC says 65 of its supporters have been killed since the election

"Zimbabwe is now a lawless country," he said. "They are not following their own laws. They are not following international law."

"The government is trying to intimidate diplomats from travelling to the countryside to witness the violence they are perpetrating against their own citizens."

Last month, Mr McGee and diplomats from five other missions, including the UK, were briefly detained by Zimbabwean security forces.

The White House denounced Thursday's incident as "completely unacceptable".

"It's outrageous, and we are contacting the Zimbabwean authorities about the matter," said US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

The US envoy to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad said he would raise the issue at the Security Council later on Thursday, and that he hoped it would express outrage about the actions of Zimbabwean police.

The UK government meanwhile said it had summoned Zimbabwe's ambassador in London to explain what happened.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the diplomats were unharmed and that no violence had been directed at them, but nevertheless described the incident as "serious".

"I think that it gives us a window into the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans, because this sort of intimidation is something that is suffered daily, especially by those who are working with opposition groups," he said.

Map

The BBC's Caroline Hawley in Johannesburg says the incident comes as human rights groups talk of an escalating campaign of state-sponsored violence ahead of the presidential run-off vote between President Robert Mugabe and Mr Tsvangirai at the end of the month.

The MDC has said at least 65 of its supporters have been killed since the election's first round in March.

Mr Tsvangirai resumed his campaign after spending eight hours in detention, but there are growing fears about the credibility of the election, she says.

The US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, told the BBC that the "conditions in Zimbabwe are not yet present to have a free or fair election on 27 June".

"We have to step back and stop the fiction that somehow we are going to be prepared for a run-off, unless there is some sort of aggressive action taken not only by the South African government but also by Sadc (Southern African Development Community) as a whole," she said.



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