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By Peta Thornycroft

PROPERTY owners next to President Robert Mugabe's retirement mansion have received written warning that their houses will be confiscated by the state.

The move represents the first time Zimbabwe's elite, both black and white, have suffered at first hand.

Millions of Zimbabweans were affected by last year's "clearances" of urban shantytowns and much of the rural population hit by Mr Mugabe's war on white farmers.

But, until now, many members of the aristocracy have escaped unscathed - and even set up home in close proximity to his putative retirement home.

Mr Mugabe, 82 next month, has nearly completed a huge luxury residence which will cost more than £6 million. It is probably the largest private dwelling in Africa. The three floors amount to approximately four acres and include a ballroom, media complex and 24 bedrooms.

The Chinese-styled palace overlooks dams and a newly-planted 50-acre garden protected by a 12ft wall.

The interior includes a Moroccan-style public room plastered by north African craftsmen. Original Chinese decorations have been used in several other public rooms.

The palace is overlooked by scores of luxury residences, some still under construction in a special estate, Borrowdale Brooke, about 18 miles north of Harare.

The first 15 homeowners at Borrowdale had warning letters on Wednesday from the valuation department of the Local Government Ministry.

"This serves to advise you that your property falls in a designated security area in terms of general notice of 255 of 2004, and we will be in contact with you soon with a view to inspecting your house for valuation purposes."

Scores more residents living in lanes around the palace say they are sure they will receive similar letters soon.

Among them are older couples hoping to sell their homes and retire closer to children who left Zimbabwe during the upheavals of the past six years.

"We will never be able to get out now," said an 84-year-old woman.

An estate agent specialising in Borrowdale properties, said: "These letters wiped out the value of any property close to the president's palace.

"Those who have actually received letters warning them their homes will be acquired must know that they will never be able to sell their homes and that they will receive no compensation."

The Zimbabwe government is bankrupt and is struggling to pay its civil servants' wages. It has no money to import essentials such as fuel.

Only a handful of more than 4,000 white farmers whose homes, lands and businesses were confiscated by the state in the past six years received compensation, in most cases less than two per cent of the value of their property.

David Coltart, a legal spokesman of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, said: "Mugabe's house has been under construction for years and this irrational, bankrupt regime only notifies residents now." - Telegraph

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