HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe's highest court Thursday ordered the government to remove squatters from hundreds of white-owned farms, and the country's leadership responded by broadcasting a radio appeal for the protesters to leave.
The appeal by Vice President Joseph Msika was the latest move in Zimbabwe's land crisis: About 50,000 squatters refuse to give up the farms, prompting farmers and opposition groups to demand police action.
Msika's statement sought to head off a constitutional crisis between the judiciary and the government of President Robert Mugabe, who is in Cuba for a summit.
The High Court has ordered the government to evict the squatters from more than 900 farms. The government has defied the order, with Mugabe calling the occupations a justified protest against unfair ownership of much of the country's productive land by 4,000 whites.
But on Thursday, Msika appealed to squatters to leave the farms and said the government wanted to end the tense stalemate amicably. The vice president stopped short of committing the government to obeying the court order and removing the squatters.
Mugabe's government has argued that police action against the squatters--who are armed with clubs, knives, spears and guns--could trigger a civil war. However, the High Court said the rule of law must be observed. The court said the government must obey the earlier order to end the farm occupations.
"We are encouraged" by the ruling, said David Hasluck, director of the Commercial Farmers Union representing about 4,000 mostly white farmers.
The standoff combines elements of racial tension and economic crisis.
The farm occupations, which began in early February, come in a nation where a few whites own one-third of the productive land while most blacks are landless and impoverished. The squatters are led by men who claim to be veterans of the bush war that led to this nation's independence in 1980.