U.S. and British diplomats are safe after Zimbabwe police, soldiers and “war veterans” stopped their convoy Thursday and threatened to burn them alive, U.S. officials said.
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said five American Embassy employees and two local staff members had been detained.
“While this immediate incident has been resolved, it will not be forgotten,” McCormack said.
The U.N. Security Council is to convene later Thursday to discuss the issue, the United Nations said.
“It is an example that this government doesn’t know any balance,” McCormack told reporters. “While we are outraged by this incident, it is nothing compared to what the Zimbabwean people suffer on a daily basis.”
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the detained Britons had been engaged in “the normal business of diplomacy.” The British diplomat and three visitors were released unharmed and allowed to go about their business, he said.
“Obviously, this is a window into the lives of Zimbabweans,” Miliband said. “Diplomats are protected by papers and international contacts in a way too many Zimbabweans are not protected.”
Zimbabwean Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga denied U.S. Ambassador James McGee’s claims of intimidation and said the diplomats were detained after trying to flee police at a roadblock.
Two U.S. Embassy cars and a British Embassy vehicle were going to check on reports of recent violence when they were stopped, McGee said.
“The police put up a roadblock, stopped the vehicles, slashed the tires, reached in and grabbed the telephones from my personnel,” said McGee, who was not in the convoy.
“The war veterans threatened to burn the vehicles with my people inside unless they got out of the vehicles and accompanied the police to a station nearby,” he added.
McGee said he believes orders to intimidate the diplomats came “directly from the top.”
When McGee found out that embassy personnel were detained, he sent an embassy security officer to the scene to see if he could help, he said.
Police extracted the security officer, a local, from the car, and beat him, McGee said.
“These are diplomatic-plated vehicles. They knew exactly who was in those vehicles,” McGee said. “This government is not following their own laws and definitely not following any international laws.”
He added, “Zimbabwe has become a lawless country.”
Matonga argued that the diplomats were detained because they wouldn’t “comply” with police and tried to flee a roadblock.