15 May 2007

Zimbabwe: Australia to Spend a$18 million on Mugabe Opponents

Port Louis — Mugabe accuses the Movement for Democratic Change, aided by the West, to try to topple his government.

Australia said yesterday it would spend A$18 million ($15 million) backing critics of Zimbabwe's strongman President Robert Mugabe just a day after banning a cricket tour of the troubled African nation.

As Zimbabwe criticised Australia's government for stopping the country's world champion cricketers from touring in September, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Canberra was determined to assist Zimbabweans battle abuses under Mugabe.

"Under the disastrous rule of the Mugabe regime, ordinary Zimbabweans have borne the brunt of famine and near total collapse brought on by the regime's destructive and callous policies," Downer said.

Australia, he said, planned to spend a total of A$6 million on human rights and humanitarian groups before June, rising by another A$12 million before June 2008.

The money would go to Zimbabwean civil rights groups opposed to the Mugabe government, as well as providing independent information about the 83-year-old's crackdown on political opponents and U.N.-backed aid in the country, Downer said.

"I'm sorry but this is a terrible regime"

Zimbabwe's Information and Publicity Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu on Sunday accused Australia's Prime Minister John Howard of using sport to demonise his government, while junior minister Bright Matonga said Canberra should not be judging his country.

"This is also a racist ploy to kill our local cricket since our cricket team is now dominated by black players as we slowly transform cricket from being an elite sport," Matonga told Zimbabwe's The Herald newspaper.

Howard, who has likened Mugabe's tactics to those of World War Two Nazis, said any racist accusations were absurd and the majority of Australians supported the government's boycott decision, including cricket captain Ricky Ponting.

"I'm sorry it has come to this. It really does pain me as a cricket lover. But this is a terrible regime," Howard said.

Australia's cricket decision won backing from Zimbabwe's main opposition figure, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who was this year beaten by government security forces.

"I think as a way of applying international pressure it is welcome," Tsvangirai told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland said Australia would be willing to play the Zimbabweans at a neutral venue, but Downer said that was unlikely to happen.

Mugabe, in power since independence in 1980, says the MDC is being funded by the West to carry out a campaign of terror to topple his government. The MDC denies the charges.

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