JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – A high-speed car chase through the Zimbabwean countryside with police in hot pursuit of U.S. diplomats. A phalanx of armed riot police blocking the Americans’ car. And threats by supporters of President Robert Mugabe to drag the diplomats from their vehicle at a roadblock, burn the car and kill them.
It reads like a script from a Hollywood thriller, but it actually signified a new low mark in U.S. relations with the Mugabe regime.
Harare is toughening its security crackdown in the lead-up to a presidential election runoff on June 27, but the dramatic cat and mouse game Thursday between Zimbabwean security forces and American diplomats left analysts wondering whether the regime cares at this point about its international reputation.
The diplomats had visited the town of Bindura, north of Harare, collecting firsthand accounts of the regime’s political violence against opposition supporters.
After fleeing police from Bindura, they said they were confronted by spikes at a roadblock outside the town of Mazowe, surrounded by the riot police and war veterans, threatened and detained for six hours. Their tires were slashed and a Zimbabwean driver with the Americans was beaten, they added. A car sent by the U.S. Embassy in Harare to help was also detained.
“The people (diplomats) in the car were quite frightened, because there were war veterans threatening to burn the car and kill them,” said a U.S. diplomat in Harare.
“It is outrageous. It is unacceptable. And while this immediate incident has been resolved, it will not be forgotten,” U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice protested the incident, saying the issue was a matter for the U.N. Security Council.
A Zimbabwean police spokesman told the Associated Press the diplomats were not threatened. He said police simply tried to protect the foreigners from an angry mob.
The diplomats were released after the U.S. ambassador, James McGee, not among those detained, contacted the Zimbabwean Foreign Ministry, demanding they be freed. A British diplomatic vehicle was also initially detained but escaped.
“It is an example of the fact that this government doesn’t know any bounds. It flouted all international convention, as well as the protections accorded to diplomats accredited to their country,” said McCormack. “And it is a taste of the kind of oppression and violence that this government is willing to use against its own people.”
Thursday’s diplomatic incident comes a day after the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai, was held for nine hours at a roadblock after campaigning in a western Zimbabwean town, sparking a storm of criticism from Western governments and human rights groups. South African President Thabo Mbeki also expressed concern.
The opposition claims Tsvangirai won the March election outright, but the Zimbabwe Election Commission credited him with about 48 percent of the vote to Mugabe’s 43 percent, forcing a runoff.
As the Mugabe regime’s crackdown intensifies, few analysts expect a fair second round vote, nor do they believe the regime will step down should it face defeat.