London (CNSNews.com) - British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook on Friday rejected calls by the opposition Conservative Party to freeze the assets of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.
Speaking after the failure of crisis talks with a high-ranking ministerial delegation from the southern African country, Cook said the "last thing farmers in Zimbabwe want is to see the temperatures escalate."
Tensions have risen in Zimbabwe over the government-sanctioned seizure of about 900 white-owned farms and political killings by Mugabe supporters. The violence has so far claimed at least 14 lives, including those of a black policeman and two white farmers.
No further meetings were planned after eight hours of negotiations at the Foreign Office ended with the Zimbabweans' refusal to accept any conditions to British offers of assistance for a land reform program.
Cook had linked the $57 million aid package to an end to the land invasions, a restoration of the rule of law, and the holding of "free and fair" general elections, already twice postponed.
Mugabe has demanded that Britain, as Zimbabwe's former colonial ruler, pay white farmers compensation for land he wants to appropriate for redistribution to blacks.
Cook said at a press conference that, "the ball is now in their [the Zimbabwean government's] court ... I made it crystal clear there would be no further talks until the end of occupations. An end to the violence and the occupation of the farms is the essential next step."
The Conservative spokesman on foreign affairs, Francis Maude, demanded Mugabe's assets be frozen and that the process begin to have Zimbabwe suspended from the Commonwealth, a grouping of Britain and 52 former colonies.
"No one is suggesting that Britain can click its fingers and bring an end to the violence, but there were steps that Robin Cook should have taken and signals that he should have sent," Maude said in a statement issued before the talks broke down.
"He neither took those steps nor sent those signals. The government's policy thus far has been one of abject inaction and hand-wringing," Maude said.
Responding to the call, Cook said in a radio interview: "There is no legal power for us to freeze unilaterally the assets of any one individual because we have a diplomatic difficulty with them.
"For Britain to act illegally seems to me to be totally the wrong message to send to Zimbabwe when we are trying to get it to stop acting illegally."
The Zimbabwean ministers held talks Friday with the secretary-general of the Commonwealth.
Opposition, Washington Criticize Police Clampdown
Political opposition leaders in Harare criticized an announcement by police that some political gatherings would be banned and the movement of party members restricted.
Although police commissioner Augustine Chihuri said on Thursday that the moves were aimed at quelling the violence, opponents of Mugabe said they would in fact favor the ruling of the ZANU (PF) party ahead of elections that, unless postponed again, could be held in May.
At least 10 members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change have been killed in recent months, allegedly at the hands of ZANU (PF) activists.
The US State Department also questioned the assumption of special powers by the police.
"We find this decision to restrict constitutional guarantees on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly only months before Zimbabweans go the polls regrettable," department spokesman Philip Reeker said.
"We know that all Zimbabweans inside and outside of government would like to see a return to stability and peace in their country. We believe the government can achieve this, not by restricting freedoms, but ensuring that they are respected," he added.
Reeker also voiced US concern about the arrest of a wire service photographer whom police are questioning in connection with a bomb explosion at a newspaper's offices in the capital, Harare.
Police detained Obed Zilwa, a South African photographer for the U.S.-based Associated Press, after he had taken pictures of the blast scene.
"We urge the government of Zimbabwe to thoroughly investigate the incident and to strictly respect due process in the case," Reeker said.
The editor of the targeted Daily News newspaper received a threatening letter prior to the attack. The paper is one of several supportive of the anti-Mugabe opposition.
Amnesty International said in a statement that an "atmosphere of fear and intimidation in the countryside is hampering freedom of assembly and association in the rural areas, particularly for those who do not support ZANU-PF."