Envoy Details Harrowing Run-In in Zimbabwe

The American diplomatic convoy sped down the road, with Zimbabwean police in hot pursuit. A police car tried to ram the speeding vehicle off the road, but the driver was able to maintain control.

Finally a police roadblock brought the chase to an end — but the ordeal would last almost six hours more.

A mob surrounded the car, beat the driver and threatened to burn alive the diplomats inside.

U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe James McGee detailed the harrowing events to ABC News in a phone interview today from the capital, Harare.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the incident "outrageous."

As dangerous as the situation was, McGee acknowledges it could have turned out much worse.

"I had some very, very cool people out there in the field," he said. "This is a lawless country."

Five diplomats from the U.S. Embassy, including the defense attaché and the top security officer, along with others from the British Embassy and three local staff, were held by a mob of plainclothes Zimbabwean military and police officers, as well as members of the feared "war veterans" group who have harassed the political opposition in recent months.

The ordeal began when the convoy traveled to a town north of Harare and investigated recent reports of political violence. "We're trying to establish, for ourselves, how serious this is," McGee said.

On the way back, they were stopped by police who demanded that they come to the police station. The defense attaché, who led the convoy, consulted with the embassy by cell phone and was told to leave the scene, which he did.

"They drove maybe 25 kilometers and all of a sudden this group of police came up behind them at high speed and tried to force them off the road," McGee said. "My people were fortunately able to maintain control of their vehicle and about 10 kilometers further on a roadblock had been established by the Zimbabwean police. They had the accordion spikes in the road, and my people were forced to stop there."

When the cars stopped, the police in pursuit jumped out of their vehicles and slashed the tires of one American car.

"Soon thereafter a group of the so-called war veterans showed up, literally took control of the situation from the police and the military and threatened to burn our people alive in their vehicles unless they got out," McGee said.

One vehicle was able to make it back to the embassy, and another embassy convoy was dispatched to the scene to assist, this one headed by the top security officer. They, too, were held by the mob upon arrival.

Luckily only the driver was injured.

"He was hit several times. He was punched by the so-called war veterans and ultimately thrown into a ditch. Fortunately, he was not seriously injured," McGee said.

Despite the embassy's efforts, it took several hours to defuse the situation.

Ambassador McGee's initial attempts to reach officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were unsuccessful.

It was not until hours later that the team was released after multiple high-level contacts between the embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Ambassador McGee had a tough message for the Zimbabweans.

"If there were any, any injuries to my folks we would have a severe diplomatic situation on our hands," he told ABC News.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs dispatched two aides to the scene who were finally able to secure the diplomats' release.

"We will make a very strong protest to the government," McGee said. The United States raised the issue in the United Nations Security Council today and called Zimbabwe's ambassador in Washington in to the State Department to levy an official protest.

McGee says there is no doubt in his mind who ordered the attack on his diplomats.

"I think this goes up to the very high levels here in Zimbabwe," he said.

"It's also clear now that the government is trying to intimidate diplomats into staying within Harare, within the city limits of Harare, and not venturing out into the countryside to see for ourselves the violence that's being perpetrated against the innocent people of Zimbabwe," McGee said.

Despite today's incident, McGee says his team is undeterred.

"We have a job to do, and we will continue to do our job," he said.

McGee's own convoy was stopped and harassed a month ago, and officials say today's confrontation was the third such incident in recent months, though perhaps the most serious.

Zimbabwe is in turmoil, roiling after contested elections threatened the government of President Robert Mugabe. Mugabe's government has cracked down on political opposition, a campaign that has intensified as a run-off election between Mugabe and his chief political rival approaches.

"The people of Zimbabwe are suffering under this regime, and I just don't think that there's going to be much opportunity, much chance that we'll have a fair election at the end of this month unless we can get a massive number of political observers and keep a very close eye on the actions of this government," McGee warned.