By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 6, 2008
A mob of loyalists to Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe attacked vehicles carrying U.S. and British diplomats yesterday as they were investigating political violence ahead of a presidential runoff election this month, the State Department said.
The diplomats were quickly released, but one driver, a Zimbabwean, was beaten and car tires were slashed. U.S. and British officials condemned the attack, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying the United States had raised at the U.N. Security Council the "outrageous behavior in the treatment of diplomats."
The attack, which took place about 25 miles north of Harare, the capital, came hours before Zimbabwe's government announced it had indefinitely suspended all work by aid groups and nongovernmental organizations. Last week, the government banned some aid groups from distributing food, accusing them of working with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
On Wednesday, police detained the president's runoff rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, for more than eight hours, but he resumed campaigning yesterday for the June 27 election.
Since the first round of voting in March, activists from the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF, have rampaged across rural areas in what human rights activists have called the country's worst political violence and intimidation in two decades.
"The situation in Zimbabwe is really quite difficult and quite grave," Rice told reporters in Washington. But she said the United States would maintain a presence in the country to "assure some modicum of civility in those elections and some modicum of fairness in those elections."
Zimbabwean officials said the diplomats were traveling outside Harare without permission and were responsible for the melee. "We have a situation where diplomats behave like real criminals," said police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena. He said the diplomats, traveling in three cars, fled a crowd and then tried to drive through a police roadblock, forcing police to deflate their tires.
"They were playing with a lion's tail by going into a ZANU-PF stronghold without clearance from the government," Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga said.
U.S. officials denied the Zimbabwean account. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack dismissed the idea of restrictions on diplomatic travel as "fictitious" and said that, in any case, the U.S. Embassy had informed the government of the convoy's travel plans.
"It is a taste of the kind of oppression and violence that this government is willing to use against its own people," McCormack said.
U.S. Ambassador James McGee, who was not in the convoy, told reporters in Harare that he had sent diplomats to Bindura, a town about 50 miles north of Harare, to try to get "a real feel of what was happening on the ground." As the diplomats were interviewing people, police arrived and told them to go to a police station to answer questions about their interviews, he said.
"My staff refused to go with them to the station, insisting that they had not committed a crime that warranted a visit to the police station," McGee said. "They then set off for Harare, and that is when the police gave chase and tried to physically force the car off the road."
The driver managed to keep the car on the road until the convoy reached the roadblock. Spikes on the road slashed the tires, and then a group of "war veterans" -- violent supporters of Mugabe -- threatened to burn the car.
McCormack said a crowd of about 40 people assaulted the driver. "We sent out another vehicle to assist them. That vehicle was detained as well," he said.
McCormack warned that "while this immediate incident has been resolved, it will not be forgotten."