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U.S. Ambassador on Trouble in Zimbabwe

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U.S. and British diplomats are detained as they travel outside Zimbabwe's capital to investigate political violence. The Bush administration called the incident outrageous. James D. McGee, the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, speaks with Robert Siegel.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The White House today demanded an explanation from the government of Zimbabwe for why a group of U.S. diplomats was detained there. The group was subsequently released. They were evidently trying to investigate allegations of violence against the political opposition. Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, lost the first round of presidential elections and he faces a runoff later this month. In May, a similar U.S. convoy was blocked and U.S. diplomats threatened. Ambassador James McGee was present for that confrontation but not for the one today, and he joins us now from the Zimbabwean capital, Harare.

Ambassador McGee, first, what happened today?

Ambassador JAMES McGEE (U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe): Robert, we had three vehicles, two U.S. vehicles, diplomatic plates, and one from our colleagues, the British embassy, that were out in the countryside trying to get an idea, gauge the climate of what's happening out there with the violence and also the run-up to the runoff election at the end of this month. Our vehicles were stopped and detained for over five hours by Zimbabwean security forces, police, military, and so-called war veterans. Those are the scary folks who threatened to burn our people alive in their vehicles if we did not get out and accompany police to a nearby police station.

SIEGEL: They threatened to burn alive the people in the vehicles?

Ambassador McGEE: That's correct. Our people were very cool under this pressure. We again invoked the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations, saying that, no, we would not go with them to a police station, and that, no, they could not search our vehicles.

SIEGEL: This appears to be the most extreme incident involving Zimbabwean security forces and U.S. diplomats. How would you place it in the context of what's happened in Zimbabwe over the past month?

Ambassador McGEE: This is more intimidation by the government, Robert. Right now Zimbabwe is a lawless country. The government of Zimbabwe's not following their own laws, and they're definitely not following any international laws. You mentioned a trip about a month ago that I was on with the British ambassador, and they stopped us also. Today became much more serious. One of our local employees, a Zimbabwean, was actually drug from his car and beaten and thrown into a ditch. Fortunately his injuries were very minor, and he's in good shape now.

SIEGEL: And...

Ambassador McGEE: This is spinning out of control.

SIEGEL: The people who beat that man, were they serving uniformed forces or were they the war veterans?

Ambassador McGEE: These were the war veterans. And again, the police were standing right there, the military were standing right there, and nobody made any attempt to stop these folks.

SIEGEL: And we should say that in Zimbabwe the war veterans are known very much as partisans of President Mugabe's movement and people who at times had been the beneficiaries of his policies that have been to the detriment of others.

Ambassador McGEE: That's absolutely correct, Robert, very much correct.

SIEGEL: Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition candidate for president, he says President Mugabe is prepared to steal the runoff election. Is he right about that?

Ambassador McGEE: I think he very well may be. We've seen massive levels of violence, intimidation in the countryside. People are being burned out of their homes. We have 50 - at least 50 people confirmed murdered in the countryside and anywhere from 25 to 30,000 people who have been displaced from their homes. Now, that's a very key issue because in Zimbabwe you can only vote in the ward where you're registered and people, of course, register in the ward where they live. If they're displaced from their homes, then they cannot vote.

SIEGEL: Well, at what point do you and the British ambassador, and obviously the foreign ministry and the foreign office in London and the State Department here, at what point do you say this is not an election campaign? This is a spate of political violence verging on civil conflict, so therefore we're not paying any attention to June 27th?

Ambassador McGEE: Well, I think we have to pay attention. This government is trying to find some legitimacy. And if there isn't the election, I think they will just go ahead and try to whitewash this into saying, we have received the massive amount of votes in our country and we are legitimate. I don't know that anyone will stand up and say anything against that. And the voices of the people of Zimbabwe need to be heard, and I think that's one of the key jobs that we're trying to do here - is to ensure that the people of Zimbabwe have an opportunity to express their will through the ballot box.

SIEGEL: Well, U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe James McGee, thank you very much for talking with us from Harare today.

Ambassador McGEE: My pleasure, Robert, good day.

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