Zimbabwe says church group was on spy mission - paper

Harare, Zimbabwe - Zimbabwe sought on Friday to discredit South African clerics who have criticised its demolitions of shantytowns, with state media saying their visit to assess the drive was bankrolled by British intelligence.

The British embassy in Harare said it had no involvement in the visit by the team led by Anglican Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, which said on Monday it had seen victims of the crackdown living in inhumane conditions at a camp near Harare.

The clergymen said they would urge local counterparts to speak more forcefully on the government campaign to tear down illegal shantytowns, which has left an estimated 300,000 people homeless and has been widely condemned at home and abroad.

The official Herald newspaper, citing government sources, denounced the visit as part of "the large campaign by Zimbabwe's detractors pushing for a regime change agenda in the country".

The Herald said it had been masterminded by a Harare-based British spy to keep the spotlight on President Robert Mugabe's government.

The British embassy said in a written response to inquiries from Reuters: "The British Embassy can confirm that the British government neither funded, nor organised the recent visit to Zimbabwe by the South African Council of Churches."

Relations between Mugabe's government and Zimbabwe's former colonial ruler have been increasingly strained in recent years, mainly over Harare's seizure of white-owned farms for redistribution among blacks.

"(Britain) would want justification for Zimbabwe to be discussed at every gathering as a rogue state, hence their continued bankrolling of clandestine operations disguised as fact-finding missions," the Herald quoted one source as saying.

Officials from the South African Council of Churches, which organised the trip, were not immediately available to comment on the Herald report.

Mugabe has defended the demolitions as necessary to clean up Zimbabwe's cities and flush out crime and illegal trading in foreign currency and other commodities in short supply.

In power since independence in 1980, he says the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party is a puppet of the British government, which he accuses of spearheading a campaign to sabotage Zimbabwe's economy over the farm seizures.

A U.N. envoy who spent two weeks in the country studying the demolitions is expected to present her findings to Secretary-General Kofi Annan later this month.