The Zimbabwean government today sharply attacked the Roman Catholic Church for charging that the Army has killed "hundreds and hundreds of innocent people" and that high government officials have "inflamed" the situation in the southwestern part of the country.
Information Minister Nathan Shamuyarira called the allegations "irresponsible, contrived and propagandistic."
The country's seven Catholic bishops said in an Easter pastoral letter released yesterday that they had "incontrovertible evidence that many wanton atrocities and brutalities have been and are still being perpetrated" by the Army.
Shamuyarira said in a statement: "We reject that the information against the Army is incontrovertible evidence because some of the allegations being made refer to actions of the dissidents."
The government charges that dissidents loyal to self-exiled opposition leader Joshua Nkomo have been responsible for widespread killings and says the Army offensive in Nkomo's Matabeleland stronghold is intended to end the violence.
In London where he fled three weeks ago, Nkomo said Wednesday that he had postponed plans to return home because of the bishops' report and will study the "deteriorating situation" in his country.
Several nongovernmental relief organizations have given reports to the government that are believed to maintain that more than 1,000 civilians have been killed by the soldiers.
The statements by the minister and the bishop were both run in full in the semiofficial Herald newspaper today.
Although the minister described the pastoral statement as "utterly one-sided" and "couched in intemperate language," he did not rule out the possibility that atrocities had been committed by the Army.
"The government is ready to investigate itself reports of any atrocities and brutalities on the part of our Army," he said.
He defended the troops, however, saying, "The actions of the Army have created a climate of peace and relief" for the people of Matabeleland.
"They will be protected by their Army, not by the Bible or the bishops," he said. He accused some of the bishops of collaborating with the white-minority government of former prime minister Ian Smith during the country's independence war, "thus indirectly helping to prolong the agony our people had to endure."
The minister also continued the government's daily attacks on foreign correspondents, saying the bishops "obviously directly borrowed from the fabricated reports of the hostile foreign press."
In a related development David Blundy, correspondent of the Sunday Times of London, said police had returned his passport, camera, tape recorder and most of his notebooks, which were seized Saturday.
At the time, he was told he could not leave Harare, the capital, and to report to the police yesterday. Blundy said the police explained that he had spoken to someone now under arrest. He said they apologized for any inconvenience and told him yesterday that he was free to leave the country and welcome to return.