American arrested in Zimbabwe free pending court

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HARARE, Oct 9 (Reuters) An American citizen arrested by police in Zimbabwe on charges of smuggling and illegal possession of arms and ammunition was freed pending a court appearance later today a US embassy official said.

Zimbabwe's state radio reported late yesterday that the man, Leslie Francis Howell Jr from Florida, was arrested at Victoria Falls airport on Friday when he tried to board a plane with two pistols and 300 rounds of ammunition.

Police could not immediately comment but officials at the US embassy in Harare confirmed the arrest.

''He was arrested but was released and his passport has been taken so that he will not leave the country,'' an embassy official told Reuters.

''We understand he will appear in court sometime today,'' said the official, who would not confirm suggestions by diplomatic sources that the man was on a hunting trip in Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation said the American was expected to be charged in court in the north-western town of Hwange.

The man arrived in Harare on September 21 and had been travelling around the country armed until his arrest, ZBC said.

He ''is suspected to be part of a ploy by the United States to scare off tourists and to depict Zimbabwe as an unsafe destination,'' the radio said.

Zimbabwe is grappling with a severe economic crisis which critics blame on President Robert Mugabe's policies and has left the country with the world's highest inflation rate and surging unemployment.

Mugabe, 83, and in power since independence from Britain says sabotage and economic sanctions by Western powers, including the United States, has hurt the economy.

REUTERS SG VC1720

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