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Could 'land grab' by Tsvangirai's niece overshadow Zimbabwe progress?

Britain pledged $8.2 million in aid after Prime Minister Gordon Brown held a landmark meeting with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai on Monday, but an attempt by Tsvangirai's niece to take over a white-owned farm is causing a stir back home.

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According to farm owner John Cremer and Zimbabwean media accounts, Ms. Chihombori, who has US citizenship and lives in the US, began the land seizure in November with the help of her sister, who lives in Zimbabwe. Since then, she has become embroiled in legal arguments about ownership of the farm.

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The seizure might have gone unnoticed had Chihombori not accompanied her uncle to the inauguration of South African President Jacob Zuma last month.

After her link to Tsvangirai was established, Chihombori withdrew her land claim. However, she has told the local Zimbabwe media it was only "for the time being."

Zimbabwean media have suggested her uncle put an end to the land claim.

"Tsvangirai is not happy about the latest developments, especially surrounding the issue of Dr. Chihombori," says a deputy minister in the inclusive government who is a close confidante of the prime minister. "It was not his intention to hog the limelight for the wrong reasons, because of a relative. He thinks she is free to do what she wants, but without his name involved."

MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa said his party did not condone land invasions. "We are of the view that the current status quo must remain as we take stock of the land reform in the unity government," he says. "As a party, we want action to be taken against the new invaders so that our transitional government can be credible."

A farmer's view

Mr. Cremer, the farm owner who has previously described the land seizure as "greed," said things had calmed in recent days. "They [the invaders] have left the farm and everything is back to normal," he says. "But I'm not at liberty to further comment on this issue because it has become political."

Cremer was born on the farm, which was originally more than 700 hectares before 650 were given away in 2002 under the government's land redistribution laws. The Cremers now have about 60 hectares, including buildings, on which they grow flowers and vegetables for export and local markets. Much of the distributed land is lying idle.

Commenting on the Cremer seizure, a senior ZANU-PF spokesman said: "Those who are occupying the farms were given offer letters long back. They are simply taking their positions. It is the hostile media which is portraying this as a new phenomenon.

"Our position as a party is that the land reform is irreversible and we support those who are taking up their farms if they have offer letters from the relevant authorities. The land reform is not just benefiting black farmers but white farmers, too."

However, the Commercial Farmers Union says it is losing faith in the unity government.

"The same government that destroys the production goes begging for support we don't really need," says Deon Theron, the union's vice president. "Put us back on the farms, and we will start producing again."

A reporter in Harare could not be named for security reasons.