A government official reported to be involved in the distribution of wildlife areas to Mugabe loyalists disputed the allegations.

"If I repeat a lie 20 times, does that make it factual?" Francis Nhema told The Associated Press last week.

Nhema leads the ministry tasked by Mugabe with putting in place a program to take over 51 percent control of remaining foreign and white-owned businesses and assets. He formerly ran the environment ministry. He has been on the U.S. sanctions list since 2003.

Embassy officials in Harare privately voiced misgivings about Nhema following a 2010 meeting he had with Charles Ray, then the U.S. ambassador. Nhema denied that high-ranking Zimbabwean officials were involved in poaching activities and he rejected reports that land within the Save Valley was being commandeered for personal gain.

"He is soft-spoken and comes across as reasonable," reads a February 2010 cable, marked confidential. "He is, however, at least somewhat disingenuous. ... In short, he toes the ZANU-PF line."

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Associated Press writer Tendai Musiya in Johannesburg contributed to this report.

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Follow Richard Lardner on Twitter: https://twitter.com/rplardner

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Online:

C4ADS: http://www.c4ads.org/

TRAFFIC: http://www.traffic.org

Born Free USA: http://www.bornfreeusa.org

Save Valley Conservancy: http://savevalleyconservancy.org

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