Firefight on Zimbabwe farm

Scores of ruling party militants fired round after round of gunfire into a white-owned farm for two days and set one of the farmer’s horses on fire in an effort drive the owner off the land, the farmer said on Thursday. He said he returned fire.

Police representative Bothwell Mugariri said the militants were unarmed and came to meet with farmer Ian Cochrane and his mother peacefully when he started shooting at them.

However, a reporter at the farm saw what appeared to be shotgun pellet holes riddling a shed outside Cochrane’s house.

The standoff on Tuesday and Wednesday would mark a new tactic in Zimbabwe’s chaotic land reform program, where ruling party militants are usually armed only with axes and machetes.

“It was like the Wild West. It is a wonder no one was killed,” Cochrane said.

The government has targeted 95% of white-owned farms for seizure and redistribution to blacks.
A deadline for the first 2 900 evictions passed August 8, but many farmers ignored it and others were fighting it in court. Cochrane had not received an eviction notice yet.

Earlier on Thursday, the government said it would tighten its land seizure laws, a move effectively canceling eviction reprieves courts have given to dozens of white farmers.

Before the seizures began two years ago, 4 500 whites owned a third of Zimbabwe’s farmland, while 7-million blacks lived on the rest.

Most of the reprieves were awarded on grounds eviction orders were not issued in accordance with the government’s own land confiscation laws, including a requirement that banks owed mortgages be consulted.

Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa said the government proposed to amend its land laws in a session of Parliament that began this week, the state Herald newspaper reported on Thursday.

An official notice of proposed amendments was expected to be released by Friday. Chinamasa said the government would then issue new eviction orders giving landowners seven days to leave their farms.

In New York, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe told the UN General Assembly that his government had completed its “fast track” program to seize white-owned farms. He did not give details.

Defending the land seizures, Mugabe said: “The primary objective of our agrarian reforms is to redress the colonial injustice perpetrated by Britain whereby a minority of British settlers in 1890 seized our land and acquired our natural resources but never paid any compensation to our ancestors.”

Mugabe’s critics say he is trying to use the violent seizures to shore up his dwindling support and that seized land is often given to his supporters and relatives.

The seizures and a drought have severely disrupted Zimbabwe’s agricultural production, leaving half the country’s 12,5-million people short of food.

The standoff at Cochrane’s tobacco and cattle farm began on Tuesday when militants, at least three of whom were armed with shotguns, arrived at the farm in the Karoi district, 200 kilometres northwest of Harare, Cochrane and neighbours said. The militants shot at his home and he responded by shooting into the ground and over their heads, they said.

Police dispersed the men, but nearly 100 came to the farm on Wednesday, many of them armed, said Cochrane (42). The militants shot near Cochrane and he fired back.

“It was more to intimidate than to kill. They could have picked me off at any time,” Cochrane said.

The militants also descended on Cochrane’s stables, where his wife gives horse-riding lessons. The militants covered Cannon, one of five horses in the pens, with hay and set it on fire. The animal received burns over 90% of its body and had to be shot. - Sapa-AP

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