JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A high-speed car chase through the Zimbabwean countryside with police in hot pursuit of U.S. diplomats. A phalanx of armed riot police blocking the Americans' car. And threats by supporters of President Robert Mugabe to drag the diplomats from their vehicle at a roadblock, burn the car and kill them.
It reads like a script from a Hollywood thriller, but it actually signified a new low mark in U.S. relations with the Mugabe regime.
Harare is toughening its security crackdown in the lead-up to a presidential election runoff on June 27, but the dramatic cat and mouse game Thursday between Zimbabwean security forces and American diplomats left analysts wondering whether the regime cares at this point about its international reputation.
The diplomats had visited the town of Bindura, north of Harare, collecting firsthand accounts of the regime's political violence against opposition supporters.
After fleeing police from Bindura, they said they were confronted by spikes at a roadblock outside the town of Mazowe, surrounded by the riot police and war veterans, threatened and detained for six hours. Their tires were slashed and a Zimbabwean driver with the Americans was beaten, they added. A car sent by the U.S. Embassy in Harare to help was also detained.
"It is outrageous. It is unacceptable. And while this immediate incident has been resolved, it will not be forgotten," said U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
A Zimbabwean police spokesman told the Associated Press the diplomats were not threatened. He said police simply tried to protect the foreigners from an angry mob.
The diplomats were released after the U.S. ambassador, James McGee, not among those detained, contacted the Zimbabwean Foreign Ministry, demanding they be freed. A British diplomatic vehicle was also initially detained but escaped.
Thursday's diplomatic incident comes a day after the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai, was held for nine hours at a roadblock after campaigning in a western Zimbabwean town.