Zimbabwe's government has threatened to arrest western journalists - a Guardian reporter among them - whom it accuses of spying on behalf of "hostile" countries ahead of next week's presidential election.
President Robert Mugabe's spokesman, George Chiramba, told the state-run press the government would "flush out" reporters he described as "agitators embedded in journalism".
The statement appeared to be a move to justify barring journalists from Britain and other countries during the March 29 election after a blanket ban on election monitors from western nations, including all EU countries and the US.
Chiramba specifically threatened reporters who have entered the country without prior press accreditation after this was refused under draconian media laws used to shut down opposition newspapers and detain reporters critical of the government.
"We are also aware of journalists from western countries who have sneaked into the country, for example one from the British Guardian newspaper, and our security personnel are on the spoor.
"Let me warn those news organisations who choose to sneak in that they are prejudicing their applications that are already with us and are exposing their personnel to arrest," he said.
Chiramba is also the author of a column in the Herald newspaper, under the pen name Nathaniel Manheru, that accused the Guardian's Africa correspondent, Chris McGreal, of spying, and warned that he faced arrest.
"What is Chris McGreal of the British Guardian up to? Does he for once think that he has got the better of the system? He is a British establishment man and allows us some insight into its mind," the column said.
"Do they have to deploy spies masquerading as journalists and tourists in such industrial quantities?"
Reporters entering Zimbabwe without prior consent from the state Media and Information Commission have faced up to two years in prison. Journalists from a number of media organisations, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Financial Times - and the Zimbabwean government's pet hate, the BBC, have periodically defied the ban after almost all reporters from western countries were refused accreditation over the past seven years.
Lawyers say the ban may no longer be legal after parliament abolished the commission last month under an agreement brokered by South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, in order to relax controls ahead of the election. The body meant to replace it has yet to be established.
But the government continues to insist that foreign journalists apply for permission to report on the election and pay about £850 for accreditation. However, Chiramba indicated that many applications, including one from McGreal, would be refused.
"We have a team drawn from information, foreign affairs and the security arms that are examining each and every application," he said. Chiramba said a number of the applications had come from journalists who worked in Iraq and Kenya during the recent post-election violence, which claimed about 1,500 lives.
"It is as if Zimbabwe is a war about to start. There is an expectation of blood in the streets, which explains the deployment of war correspondents and cameramen. It's a way to psych the world against the results to justify the continuation of sanctions," he said.
Source: The Guardian, UK