Political tension between Zimbabwe and Australia spiked on Monday after Canberra followed through on a recent announcement that it was stepping up sanctions against Harare by deporting eight students who are children of top Zimbabwe officials.
Government sources in Harare said the move sent shock waves through government and ruling party circles where there is fear that other Western countries such as the United States, Britain and Canada may take their cue from Australia and deport the dependents of top government and ruling ZANU-PF officials.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said last month that the suspension of student visas, an extension of existing sanctions against Zimbabwe, was provoked by President Mugabe's disregard of democratic principles and human rights.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard called Mr. Mugabe an "undemocratic bully" while briefing the media on talks with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
Sources told VOA that the young deportees were met at Johannesburg International Airport by a visibly infuriated Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri and Rural Affairs Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa. Chihuri’s son Sylvester and Mnangangwa’s son Emmerson were among those deported, the sources said.
Australian sources said dependents affected include three children of Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono, and offspring of Economic Planning Minister Sylvester Nguni, Science and Technology Minister Olivia Muchena, Local Government Minister Ignatius Chombo, and Harare Provincial Governor David Karminzira.
When contacted by VOA, Mnangagwa professed ignorance of the development.
The Zimbabwe National Students Union said it welcomed Canberra's move.
Analyst Innocent Chofamba-Sithole told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe from London that complaints from officials in Harare are hypocritical as the government attacks the West but its officials send their children to study there.
On the same flight that carried the students back to Africa was opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, whose contacts with top Australian officials in recent days during a visit Down Under drew heated criticism from Harare officials and state media.
Tsvangirai spokesman William Bango said that during the connecting flight between Johannesburg and Harare, Zimbabwe Republic Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri accused Tsvangirai of spurring Australia to deport the students.
More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...