Britain warns Malawi over diplomatic spat

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Britain warned Malawi on Tuesday to avoid escalating a diplomatic spat caused when its ambassador criticised President Bingu wa Mutharika, saying there would be "consequences" for bilateral ties.

The Foreign Office summoned Malawi's charge d'affaires to convey its "strong concern" that Lilongwe was considering expelling the British high commissioner, Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, it said in a statement.

The action came a day after Malawi Foreign Minister Etta Banda summoned Cochrane-Dyet to grill him on a leaked memo criticising the president, according to a British embassy official.

In the diplomatic telegram published by the weekly Nation on Saturday, the British ambassador had written that Mutharika was becoming "ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism."

He added that the "governance situation continues to deteriorate in terms of media freedoms, freedom of speech and minority rights."

At the meeting in London, Foreign Office acting permanent under secretary Geoffrey Adams conveyed Britain's "strong concern at suggestions that the government of Malawi is considering declaring the British high commissioner, Mr Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, 'persona non grata'," the statement said.

Adams made clear "that such an action would be unacceptable" and stressed that Cochrane-Dyet was "an able and effective high commissioner, who retains the full confidence of the British government", the statement said.

"Sir Geoffrey added that if the government of Malawi pursued such action there were likely to be consequences affecting the full range of issues in the bilateral relationship," it added.

"He urged the Malawian authorities, through the charge d'affaires, not to proceed down such a road."

Britain is Malawi's main bilateral donor but it slashed aid by £3 million (3.4 million euros, $4.9 million) to the southern African nation last year after expressing concern at the government's purchase of a $13.26 million presidential jet.

Malawi, which depends on donor support for up to 40 percent of its development budget and salaries for 169,000 civil servants, said the new jet was cheaper than hiring a plane every time the president travelled abroad.

Malawi has recently drawn criticism from donor countries, including Britain, over a new law that allows publications to be banned.

© 2011 AFP

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