By Basildon Peta

Harare - World Bank president James Wolfensohn and International Monetary Fund managing director Horst Koehler have rejected Zimbabwe Finance Minister Simba Makoni's pleas for urgent financial help, saying the government first had to restore the rule of law before aid could be released.

Makoni, who has not given a single media interview since his appointment seven months ago, could not be reached for comment on his latest effort to win back IMF and World Bank support for Zimbabwe.

But Zimbabwe's Financial Gazette, quoting Harare-based diplomats close to the two institutions, said Koehler and Wolfensohn had told Makoni in separate meetings in Washington last week that Harare had to stop its fast-track land reforms, already adjudged illegal by Zimbabwe's Supreme Court.

The government should instead implement a lawful land scheme that adheres to principles that were agreed between it and aid donors at a Harare land summit in 1998, the diplomats said.

Harare's unwillingness to co-operate with UN Development Programme administrator Mark Malloch Brown to find a peaceful solution to the land crisis had also contributed to the decision by the IMF and World Bank not to help Makoni.

Malloch Brown, acting on behalf of UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, in December delivered a list of proposals to end the crisis through orderly and lawful land reforms.

But no response has been forthcoming from Harare, which has instead pushed ahead with its controversial fast-track scheme.

The old impediments that forced the IMF to suspend aid in 1999 - a burgeoning budget deficit, a weak monetary policy and a slow pace of selling off loss-making state firms - were also outstanding issues needing resolution before aid was given.

The refusal by the IMF and World Bank to grant financial aid to Zimbabwe, which comes as key European nations are also halting development aid to Harare, has all but killed Makoni's hopes of breathing new life into an economy under siege.

Makoni, who has returned to Harare, is expected to give President Robert Mugabe and his cabinet a frank briefing on his talks with Koehler and Wolfensohn, and what the government must do if it wants any financial aid from an increasingly hostile international community.

Meanwhile, the Zimbabwe High Court has once again ordered police commissioner Augustine Chihuri to remove gangs of marauding war veterans and Zanu-PF supporters who have illegally occupied prime commercial white farms in the Hwedza farming area.

Newly appointed Judge Rita Makarau's order is the fifth such judgment passed in the High Court and Supreme Court. - The Star Foreign Service