John Howard, the Australian prime minister, has ordered the country's national cricket team to cancel their planned tour of Zimbabwe later this year.
The Australian government had previously outlined its determination to scrap the tour in protest over Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean president's, regime.
Howard said today he had instructed Alexander Downer, the foreign minister, to contact Cricket Australia (CA) to tell them the planned one-day series in September would be cancelled. "The government through the foreign minister has written to the organisation of Cricket Australia instructing that the tour not go ahead," Howard told ABC radio today. "We do not do this lightly, but we are convinced that for the tour to go ahead there would be an enormous propaganda boost to the Mugabe regime,” he said.
"The Mugabe regime is behaving like the Gestapo towards its political opponents. The living standards in the country are probably the lowest of any in the world," he said. Howard said that if the tour went ahead it would be a huge boost to Mugabe, who he called a "grubby dictator."
James Sutherland, the CA chief executive, said while he accepted the government's responsibility to make decisions about international relationships, his organisation would need time to assess the implications of a pullout.
"Given our commitment to help Zimbabwe cricket develop, we will now explore the possibility of playing the three ODIs we are due to play against Zimbabwe in September at a neutral venue outside Zimbabwe," he said in a statement.
Ricky Ponting, Australian captain, said he respected the decision, though he added that he was aware of Australia's responsibilities to play International Cricket Council (ICC) member and non-member countries. The government said earlier in the week that it would indemnify CA against any financial losses incurred as a result of cancelling the tour, estimated to be around $2 million.
Howard said he had spoken to Ponting in Sydney on the day the side returned from their victorious World Cup campaign and also to players' association representatives. He said he felt the decision was what the players wanted.
Howard also criticised the ICC. Zimbabwe is still recognised by the ICC, though the sport's ruling body has withdrawn the side's test status. Countries that refuse to tour the African state can be sanctioned but Stuart MacGill, Australian leg-spinner, lodged a personal protest in 2004.
Shortly after his announcement, Australia's tour was cancelled and no fines were imposed. Later that year, England's planned tour of the country was also postponed after the ICC took away Zimbabwe's test status.
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