WASHINGTON – The United States condemned Zimbabwe's brief detention U.S. diplomats Thursday and pledged to raise the matter with U.N. officials.
"It is absolutely outrageous and it is a case of the kind of repression and violence that this government is willing to use against its own people," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters. "While we are outraged by this incident, it is nothing" compared to what Zimbabweans live with daily.
Zimbabwe's government did release the diplomats, who were stopped at a roadblock just north of Harare, the capital, McCormack said. The U.S. ambassador in Zimbabwe said police slashed tires and grabbed phones, and that "war veterans" threatened to burn the vehicles with the officials inside.
McCormack said the U.S. intended to bring the issue to the attention of the U.N. Security Council, to Zimbabwean diplomats attending a U.N. food conference in Rome and to President Robert Mugabe's government in Harare.
The U.S. wants to express to the council "our deep concern, unhappiness and distress" and "highlight the fact that the international system is watching events in Zimbabwe and that the actions by the Mugabe government will not go unremarked."
Doing so, he said, "signifies our deep distress at what happened today. Also, it signals our intention that we are going to continue to press this matter."
Diplomats from the U.S. and Britain were attacked as they tried to investigate political violence in Zimbabwe and a U.S. Embassy staffer was beaten, an embassy spokesman said. Five Americans, four Britons and three Zimbabweans were in a three-car convoy, according to U.S. Ambassador James McGee. The British diplomats also were released later.
Zimbabwean police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena denied that security agents had threatened the diplomats. He said police were trying to rescue the Americans from a threatening mob.
McCormack said it was absurd to suggest that the Zimbabwean government did not know of the U.S. officials' plans to travel outside Harare.
McGee, who was not with the group of diplomats, said that Zimbabwean police, military officers and the war veterans, who are fiercely loyal and often violent supporters of Mugabe, were responsible for what he called an "illegal action."
"Zimbabwe has become a lawless country," McGee said, adding that he believes the orders of intimidation are "coming directly from the top."
Opposition and rights groups have accused Mugabe of orchestrating violence and intimidation in the run-up to a June 27 presidential runoff.