/ 13 May 2008

Zim cops in hospital stand-off with US envoy

Armed police tried to prevent the United States ambassador to Zimbabwe and several other diplomats from leaving a hospital where victims of post-election violence were being treated Tuesday, an Agence France-Presse correspondent with the convoy said.

Ambassador James McGee and four colleagues tried unsuccessfully to tour a hospital in Mvurwi, about 80km north of Harare, without prior approval and then found their exit blocked by four armed police.

A stand-off lasting around 10 minutes ensued before McGee strode forward and opened the gates to leave the government hospital himself.

“I can only speculate that it was just a message for us not to go and expose this. Obviously they didn’t want us to see the brutality … happening in the rural areas,” US embassy spokesperson Paul Engelstad told reporters.

McGee, who travelled to the countryside with fellow diplomats from Britain, The Netherlands, Japan and the European Union, called it “a minor, very minor misunderstanding” with a security officer.

Later as the convoy left for the capital, it was detained at a roadblock for almost an hour where police asked for proof the diplomats had followed procedures requiring them to notify the authorities of their travel plans.

“They wanted to check that we had put in a diplomatic note. They asked for our diplomatic note which they were shown,” said the US embassy spokesperson.

After being rebuffed at the first hospital, the convoy travelled to visit another, where they were able to spend 30 minutes touring wards and visiting victims of violence.

“I think it is absolutely urgent that the entire world knows what’s happening in Zimbabwe,” McGee said.

“The [Zimbabwe] government has said ‘present us with proof of what is happening’ … now we have concrete proof of what is happening,” he added.

British ambassador to the country, Andrew Pockock, said the violence was “pretty well organised, well calculated and very disturbing.”

“This is an effort to change the voting demography in Zimbabwe either by beating people and intimidating them or displacing them … so they don’t vote,” he said.

Leoni Cuelenaere, deputy head of mission at The Netherlands embassy, said she was “shocked” by what she saw in the hospital.

Of the political violence, EU ambassador Xavier Marcel said: “We all wish that it [the violence] can be stopped as soon as possible.” – AFP