November 20, 2007 / 9:36 PM / 12 years ago

Former Rhodesian leader Ian Smith dies

HARARE (Reuters) - Ian Smith, who defied the world in 1965 when he led 270,000 white Rhodesians in a unilateral declaration of independence from Britain rather than accept moves to black-majority rule, has died in South Africa aged 88.

Ian Smith, the former Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) Prime Minister speaks during an interview at his house in Harare, Zimbabwe in this February 2004 file photo. Smith has died in South Africa aged 88, the British Broadcasting Corporation reported on its website on Tuesday. REUTERS/Howard Burditt HB/ABP

State-owned radio ZBC, reporting his death, said that “Smith will be remembered for his racism and for the deaths of many Zimbabweans.”

Smith became prime minister of white-ruled Rhodesia in 1964 and remained in office until a guerrilla war forced him to accept a ceasefire and political settlement in 1979.

Elections were held the following year, when Rhodesia became the black-ruled republic of Zimbabwe, with Robert Mugabe as prime minister.

Smith remained vocal in opposition to Mugabe, even after the parliamentary seats reserved for whites were abolished in 1987.

He moved to Cape Town four years ago for health reasons. It was not immediately possible to confirm the report of his death independently.

Over the years, Mugabe has suggested his government could have hanged Smith and his closest allies for war crimes and human rights abuses.

“If we were vindictive, if we had not pursued a policy of reconciliation for which our detractors don’t give us any credit, that head that Smith carries should have been chopped,” Mugabe has said repeatedly.

Officials in Mugabe’s government said on Tuesday that Smith — who in 1976 declared he didn’t believe in black majority rule, “not in a thousand years” — would not be missed.

“Smith will not be mourned or missed here by any decent person because he was an unrepentant racist whose racist stance and opposition to our independence caused a war, and he was responsible for a lot of deaths and suffering,” Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga told Reuters.

Mugabe, who is battling a severe economic crisis blamed on his policies, dismisses white Zimbabweans opposed to his rule as hankering for Smith’s racist Rhodesia.

“They say Rhodesians never die and that Rhodesia will live forever, but here we killed Rhodesia and Zimbabwe shall never be a colony again,” he said at a rally earlier this year.

The white population, which is estimated to have shrunk to about 40,000, has kept a low political profile since an often violent farm seizure campaign by Mugabe’s supporters which started seven years ago.

Although Smith managed to hold onto his own farm, he said the farm seizures proved Mugabe was a terrorist and a communist who should never have been allowed to assume power.

“We were right, and the world can see that this is an absolute disaster,” he said in a recent interview.

Editing by Michael Georgy and Tim Pearce

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