LONDON Western powers vowed on Tuesday to keep up pressure on Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe despite threats to expel their diplomats if they continue to criticize his government.
Both Britain and the United States have called for more sanctions against Mugabe's government because of what they say was a violent crackdown on opposition leaders and the severe economic crisis they blame on state mismanagement.
Zimbabwe Foreign Affairs Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi on Monday warned Western envoys in Harare the government would not hesitate to expel those who backed opposition politics.
Zimbabwe officials have not said which countries could be targeted for expulsion but they are thought to include former colonial ruler Britain, the United States, Australia and Sweden.
"Such threats will not deter the UK from speaking out against the continued misgovernance and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe," a British Foreign Office official told Reuters.
"It's a tragic, unfortunate situation and it's just terrible to watch, most especially because it's the Zimbabwean people that are suffering as a result," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said of the situation in the country.
Mugabe last week told his Western critics "to go hang" and ordered Mumbengegwi to "read the riot act" to Western envoys.
Police arrested main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and 49 others on March 11, accusing them of holding an illegal rally. Tsvangirai and several others later received hospital treatment -- they said they had been beaten and tortured in custody.
"With the international community, we are pressing (Mugabe) to reverse course and end human rights abuses and political violence," said British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett.
The European Union has renewed a range of sanctions including an arms embargo, travel ban and asset freeze on Mugabe and other government officials. Western governments, including the 27-nation EU, deny they are meddling in Zimbabwean politics.
The EU's executive has allocated nearly 3 million euros ($3.99 million) for projects in Zimbabwe which support local democracy, human rights defenders and media monitoring.
"We do not support the opposition as such but (help) so that the opposition and the civil society can express themselves freely," European Commission aid spokesman Amadeu Altafaj said.
Beckett told parliament on Tuesday that Britain was "endeavoring to get a head of steam" behind its call for urgent action by the human rights council at the United Nations.
Britain was also trying to persuade EU colleagues to extend sanctions against Zimbabwe and has demanded direct action against those responsible for Tsvangirai's injuries.
Zimbabwe has been relying on food aid from U.N. agencies and Western powers for the last six years as a result of a sharp drop in agricultural production that critics blame on Mugabe's seizures of white-owned farms for distribution to blacks.
Once southern Africa's bread basket, the country is struggling with inflation of more than 1,700 percent, frequent food and fuel shortages and unemployment of about 80 percent.
U.S. ambassador Christopher Dell walked out of the meeting with Zimbabwe's foreign minister on Monday "refusing to participate in the government's attempt to justify its recent brutality". State department spokesman McCormack said Dell was in London on Tuesday, but would return to Harare soon.
(Additional reporting by Cris Chinaka and MacDonald Dzirutwe in Harare, Ingrid Melander in Brussels and Sue Pleming in Washington)