Prime Minister Robert Mugabe angrily attacked the foreign media tonight for its reporting about Zimbabwean Army atrocities, but he declined to say whether he had received independent reports sent to the government alleging that hundreds of civilians have been killed by his troops.
Mugabe accused the foreign press of writing "propaganda" and refused to allow an outside investigation of charges that soldiers have brutally attacked residents of Matabeleland, the southwestern region that is the tribal stronghold of opposition leader Joshua Nkomo.
Nkomo fled into exile in Botswana four days ago after saying Mugabe had ordered the Army to kill him, a charge that the government has denied. Nkomo flew to London tonight despite being told by British diplomats that Britain is not "enthusiastic" about his entry. He is expected to arrive early Sunday morning.
Returning from the summit of nonaligned nations in New Delhi, Mugabe reaffirmed at a brief airport press conference that Nkomo was welcome to return "and he will be safe." But he refused to rule out the arrest of the 65-year-old politician who started the independence struggle for this southern African country more than three decades ago. He called Nkomo's flight a "reprobate and completely disgraceful act."
The prime minister did hold out an olive branch to leaders of Nkomo's Zimbabwean African People's Union party.
Despite calls for liquidation of the party by several of his senior Cabinet ministers in the past week, Mugabe said, "I don't see any reason why ZAPU must be banned." He also said there was no reason to dismiss the five ZAPU party Cabinet ministers.
Mugabe is under increasing pressure from western governments to investigate the alleged Army atrocities. Ambassadors from most of the major aid-donor countries made representations to the government during the past few days, senior western diplomats said.
U.S. Ambassador Robert Keeley met yesterday with Deputy Prime Minister Simon Muzenda on the subject.
Sweden has announced it is suspending consideration of future aid until the government provides a report on the Matabeleland situation.
Mugabe's responses at the press conference showed that he has been bothered by the widespread charges in the foreign press, which have damaged Zimbabwe's image.
Asked about reports about atrocities from church and relief organizations, he said, "Let's not just shout noises for your employers, so that your paper can carry out propaganda."
"If given concrete allegations," he said, the government would "investigate as objectively as possible." Some independent reports cite hundreds of killings of civilians.
"We are humanitarians," Mugabe said. "We don't want to see people killed wantonly for no purpose."
Asked about the possibility of an investigation by the London-based human rights group Amnesty International, the normally unflappable prime minister pounded the table and said with rising emotion, "We are an independent state. We are not dictated from your capitals. We will investigate cases ourselves. Has there ever been any Amnesty investigation into Northern Ireland?"
Wire service reports from Johannesburg said Nkomo told reporters during a stop there on his way to London that he would be returning to Zimbabwe "in a few weeks."
Nkomo said two senior Zimbabwean ministers flew to Gaberone, the Botswanan capital, yesterday to try to persuade him to return.
Mugabe told the press conference he was "not going to go out of my way to drag him into the country. If he wants to be in exile it's entirely up to him. I don't see any reason why he should decide to be in exile."
Mugabe's offer to guarantee Nkomo's safety contrasted with reports that a request for such protection made by Nkomo earlier this month went unanswered.
A rally at the airport for Mugabe by several thousand people indicated some reason for Nkomo's concern. Mugabe's supporters flaunted posters with slogans including "Nkomo must be killed," "Nkomo come back and face murder charges," and, more humorously, "Nkomo granny of the year," which was a reference to the government claim that the politician fled disguised as a woman.
After Nkomo fled, members of his family were detained by police. His wife has been released, but his daughter, son-in-law and lawyer are still being held. No charges have been filed.
The cutoff of Swedish plans to provide $18 million in aid next year is likely to particularly annoy Mugabe. Sweden has been an outspoken opponent of white-minority rule on the continent and provided aid to Mugabe's guerrilla movement during its war against the white government of prime minister Ian Smith. Swedish Ambassador Bo Heineback, while reserving judgment on the validity of the allegations, said the reports about mass killings "came as a shock to people in Sweden."
Chester Crocker, U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, also expressed unease about the violence in testimony to a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee this week.
"Recent widely reported events in Zimbabwe may lead some to question whether we should keep our commitment" for $225 million in aid during a three-year period, he said but added, "It is critical that we remain engaged in Zimbabwe's future."
U.S. diplomats have told Zimbabwean officials that the violence may make it difficult to get congressional approval for $75 million in aid for next year plus restoration of $15 million cut this year.