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Zimbabwe waters get murkier

Johannesburg: Zimbabwe will spy on English and Australian cricketers playing in World Cup matches because President Robert Mugabe believes British agents are planning to assassinate him, a South African newspaper reported on Sunday.

Mugabe wanted to ban the Australian and English cricketers because he feared British MI6 agents, working in cahoots with the Zimbabwean Opposition, would use the occasion to kill him, the Sunday Independent reported.

It said the cabinet persuaded Mugabe last week that hosting the matches would be a diplomatic coup for Zimbabwe after pressure from the British and Australian governments for a boycott of the matches in the southern African nation.

The newspaper, citing unidentified authoritative Zimbabwean government sources, said the cabinet agreed that the Zimbabwean spy agency, the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), would assign at least three agents to each English and Australian cricketer or official.

“The fact is that Mugabe would rather not have these people here. He thinks after humiliating (British Prime Minister Tony) Blair at the Earth Summit (in Johannesburg last year, when Mugabe blamed Blair for Zimbabwe’s problems). And after the failure of the West to remove him from power, the focus is now on killing him,” an official, who declined to be named, said. “He thinks British intelligence are working full-time on that.”

‘Keep away from Mugabe’

Meanwhile, in London, British ministers asked England’s cricketers not to shake hands with the African ruler in protest against Mugabe regime.

Tessa Jowell, secretary of state for culture, media and sport and Baroness Amos, the junior Foreign Office minister, will tell representatives of the ECB next Thursday to convey their request to the players.

Jowell and Baroness Amos are resigned to the ECB rejecting demands by Prime Minister Tony Blair to boycott the match in Harare, according to a report in the Sunday Telegraph.

Meanwhile, Peter Hain, the cabinet minister who rose to fame by campaigning against sporting links with South Africa, has urged the International Cricket Council not to stage matches in Zimbabwe in protest against the country’s human rights record.

In an article in Sunday’s Independent, Hain argued that the ICC should move the six games to South Africa. If they go ahead in Zimbabwe, England should unilaterally refuse.

“If Mugabe gets his way, England should not go. But if their international sister organisations do not stand up for morality against oppression, if other governments do not back our government’s stand, then it is still important for English cricket to show some moral backbone.”

“What about those Zimbabwean youngsters unable to play because they haven’t been fed' What will the English team do if British sports journalists are blocked from covering not just the overs and the runs, but the context too' What will they do if ordinary Zimbabweans protest against the matches — as they well might — and are clubbed away mercilessly, may be to death' The temperature on the streets in Zimbabwe is rising. It could well erupt around the World Cup as people demand food and freedom.”

According to reports, a minister said: “It is up to the ECB. I think the tour will go ahead, but the team will be told not to meet Mugabe. There will be no handshakes with him.”

The demand will cause consternation in the England camp. An official close to the team told the newspaper: “none of the players wants to shake hands with Mugabe, but it is ludicrous for the government to try to impose some kind of ban.”

The English cricket official said: “If the government makes such a request (to snub Mugabe), then isn’t he definitely going to exploit it and rush up to Nasser (Hussain) and try to shake his hand'”

Meanwhile, Zimbabwean cricket authorities are asking England not to boycott their game in Harare.

Zimbabwe Cricket Union president Peter Chingoka was quoted in British Sunday newspapers as saying that a boycott would hit ordinary Zimbabweans rather than the government.

“We have spent 400 million Zimbabwe dollars ($7.21 million) and we believe we deserve a return on that investment,” he told a BBC radio programme, according to the reports. “Directly the World Cup organisation employs 220 people so the extended family means at least 1,000 mouths are fed through cricket.”

In Sydney, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said on Sunday that his government would consider contributing to the cost of a boycott of World Cup cricket matches scheduled to be played in Zimbabwe.

“I’m aware of some of the financial implications involved and speaking from the Australian government’s point of view, that’s something that we’d obviously be willing to talk about,” Howard said during the fifth Ashes Test here.

Opposition’s concerns

Meanwhile, South African Opposition lawmakers have said that plans to hold matches in Zimbabwe would lend legitimacy to Mugabe the same way the 1936 Olympics were used to boost Hitler.

The matches would be used, “in the same way as the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin were used to build Adolf Hitler’s profile,” said the main Opposition Democratic Alliance in a statement. (AFP)

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