HARARE, Zimbabwe — Hours before the first EU visit to Zimbabwe in eight years, President Robert Mugabe accused the West on Friday of wanting to recolonize his impoverished African nation.
Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since its independence from Britain nearly three decades ago, called Western nations "neocolonialists" who can "never be our friends."
"They still want our land," he told the youth wing of his ZANU-PF party. "Why are voices being sounded across the world for regime change to take place in Zimbabwe?"
The 85-year-old leader said his people were being punished and forced to live in poverty because of Western sanctions, which were largely targeted against Mubage and his cronies but also restrict Zimbabwe's ability to raise foreign funding.
This week, African leaders called for the sanctions to be lifted, following Mugabe's February agreement to share power with longtime rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. The move has helped Zimbabwe reverse years of isolation and improve relations with the international community.
EU officials were arriving late Friday on the bloc's first official visit to Zimbabwe since 2002, and Zimbabwe said Friday it would release about 1,500 prisoners from 46 overcrowded prisons under an amnesty program for women, juveniles, the terminally ill and people serving sentences of less than 38 months. Some 150 have already been freed from Harare Central Remand Prison, said prison manager Elizabeth Banda.
EU Development Commissioner Karel De Gucht said the bloc's sanctions against Zimbabwe have "no impact on the common population." He and Swedish Development Minister Gunilla Carlsson, whose country holds the EU presidency, will lead the delegation on its visit through Sunday. They planned to meet with both Mugabe and Tsvangirai.
"This is not about sanctions," he told reporters Friday in neighboring South Africa. "It's not about excuses and disputes. It is about a process than can lead to a normalization of relations."
Western donors have been reluctant to resume aid funding, however, until they see strong signs of reform and end to human rights violations.
Zimbawbe's government has been slow to realize change due to ongoing differences between Mugabe and Tsvangirai. Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change party accuses Mugabe's ZANU-PF of stalling on reforms and continuing to attack and harass activists.
The EU delegation met Friday with South African officials outside the coastal city of Cape Town, and issued a joint statement noting Zimbabwe's progress made in implementing the power-sharing agreement but expressing "concerns about the environment" in which the new government was operating.
The statement called for "all parties to remove all obstacles" to the "effective functioning of the inclusive government."
Associated Press Writer Courtney Brooks in Kleinmond, South Africa, contributed to this report.