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Zimbabwe, WFP Sign Deal to Distribute Food Aid

After weeks of difficult negotiations, the U.N.World Food Program has signed an agreement with the Zimbabwe government for an emergency program to feed up to four million people. The United Nations won its demand that all food distribution be done by non-governmental organizations and not the Zimbabwe government.

The World Food Program said it fed two million people in November although the agreement was only signed Thursday.

The Zimbabwe government said last year it had grown record crops and asked the WFP to stop feeding people ahead of the general election this past March. Human rights groups protested that food was used as a political weapon during the run up to the poll.

For the fifth year in a row, ever since President Robert Mugabe instituted a policy of seizing white-owned commercial farms, Zimbabwe's crops have failed. The economy, which depended for decades on agriculture produced by the seized farms, has bee bankrupted. Zimbabwe had been self sufficient in food production and its export crops provided 40 percent of annual foreign exchange earnings.

Economists say that such products as seed, fertilizer, fuel and equipment, were largely unavailable because of foreign currency shortages in last growing season. In addition, rainfall was patchy, and in some areas, there was a drought.

The WFP had been pressing to resume its emergency feeding program for several months. Mr. Mugabe had said he would not allow non-governmental organizations to distribute food because they have a political agenda.

The WFP, backed by strong calls from Secretary General Kofi Annan, insisted NGOs would distribute the food and its determination has prevailed.

The WFP said its non-governmental partners were preparing to feed more than three million people, as well as an additional million who are already being fed through programs for targeted groups, such as orphans, school children and people living with HIV/AIDS.

WFP regional spokesman Michael Huggins in Johannesburg said the deal only covered food aid to rural areas and that many more people would benefit from emergency feeding in urban areas. He said this could not be done until the Zimbabwe government recognized that there was a need for assistance in these areas.

Most opposition supporters live in urban areas.

Mr. Huggins said the WFP was concerned about urban dwellers who lost their incomes during the government's demolition of hundreds of thousands of urban homes and a crackdown on informal traders last May and June.

Agricultural sources across the country say that the 2006 farming season will be the worst ever. December first is the last day for maize plantings for fair yields according to the Commercial Farmers Union.

Less maize has been planted this summer season than at any time in the last 50 years according to farmers' organizations. The present agreement with the WFP runs until June next year.

Emergency food is largely funded by donations from the United States, the European Union and Britain.