A campaign for justice by survivors of a series of massacres carried out by troops loyal to ex-Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in the eighties has cast renewed light on alleged British complicity in covering up the killings.

A conference of survivors and relatives of victims of the 1983-1987 Matabeleland massacres, also known as the Gukurahundi, has called on Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa to launch a truth and reconciliation commission into the atrocities.

But a British academic who has studied British archives says there is also evidence that Margaret Thatcher's Government deliberately ignored the killings and even tried to water down media reports about the atrocities.

Hazel Cameron, a lecturer in international relations at the University of St Andrews and the only researcher to have seen the British documents, said there was no doubt officials were aware of the atrocities but failed to act.


"As early as February 17, 1983, Western governments including the British Government had access to information of shocking atrocities and suggestions from witnesses that this was similar to what the Nazis carried out against the Jews, but they were willing to turn a blind eye to it," said Cameron, who published a paper on Britain's "Wilful Blindness" to the massacres last year.

She cites documents showing that a British military training mission to Zimbabwe trained officers from the Fifth Brigade after evidence of mass murder and rape came to light and that a Foreign Office official attempted to persuade the BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman to moderate a Panorama documentary about the killings, she said.

"The rationale for naked realpolitik, which is what we saw taking place in the eighties, is multi-layered, but what comes through is that economic and strategic concerns trumped concerns about human rights," she added.

The Gukurahundi began as a conflict between Mugabe's Zanu-PF party and Zapu, another nationalist party that had also fought against minority White rule before independence.

A campaign of violence by a North Korean-trained army unit called the Fifth Brigade led to thousands of people from Zimbabwe's Ndebele minority, from which Zapu drew much of its support, being murdered, raped, and forced into exile.

The atrocities have cast a shadow over the Zimbabwean Government to this day.

Both Mugabe, who ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years, and Mnangagwa, who ousted him in November, are widely believed to have been instrumental in orchestrating the campaign.

Cameron based her research on documents she obtained from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence, and the Cabinet Office via a Freedom of Information Request in 2011. But those documents were not released into the public domain under the 30-year rule in 2013 and 2014 as they should have been.

Lawyers in Bulawayo, the capital of Matebeleland, filed an application for a court order to force British Prime Minister Theresa May to release the documents.

"We believe the British Government has more information about this," said Welshman Ncube, a partner in the law firm which lodged the application.

A Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesman said: "We are transferring tens of thousands of files to the National Archives and a schedule is in place to release the highest priority sets of files first."