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US Calls Zimbabwe Food Aid Hijacking Unconscionable

The United States Thursday condemned as unconscionable behavior the hijacking by Zimbabwe security forces last week of a truckload of food aid intended for hungry school children. U.S. officials say the stolen food was handed out to political supporters of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

U.S. officials are furious about the food hijacking and Zimbabwe's broader curbs on international aid, and say the actions make the Mugabe government complicit in the suffering and deaths of its own citizens.

The hijack incident occurred last week, but details of the episode became clear to U.S. officials only in the past few days.

According to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a truck carrying 20 metric tons of U.S.-provided food was about to be unloaded at a school in Zimbabwe's eastern Mutare district when a group of police, military officers and war veterans threatened the driver, and forced him to take the vehicle to a local police station.

There, according to the USAID account, the local governor had the war veterans distribute the food, including sacks of grain, beans, and cooking oil, to participants in a rally of supporters of Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party.

Veterans of Zimbabwe's 1980's independence struggle, Mugabe loyalists, have frequently been involved in violent acts against the political opposition.

In a written statement, USAID Administrator Henrietta Fore called for an end to what she termed unconscionable behavior by the Mugabe supporters, who she said engaged in an orchestrated theft of U.S. government property and should be brought to justice.

State Department Acting Spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos told reporters the incident is another example of the Harare government's use of food aid as a political weapon, in advance of the June 27 run-off election pitting Mr. Mugabe against opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai:

"We believe that this must end," he said. "We call on the government, the Zimbabwean authorities, to immediately reinstate permission for all aid agencies to resume their life-saving assistance. Failure to do so constitutes government of Zimbabwe complicity in the assault, suffering and deaths of innocent citizens."

U.S. food aid to Zimbabwe, amounting to more than $170 million last year, has been distributed by three non-governmental charitable groups.

The State Department said last week's government order barring international aid groups from doing field operations was aimed at making the government the sole distributor of food aid in the election run-up.

U.S. diplomats have accused the government of confiscating national identity cards from opposition supporters seeking food aid, making it impossible for them to cast votes in the election.

In another development, the State Department condemned the arrest and pending treason charge against the second-ranking official of Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Spokesman Gallegos said the action against MDC secretary-general Tendai Biti was a provocation and another example of a concerted effort by the Mugabe government to ensure that the opposition cannot campaign effectively.

Following the lead of the MDC, the United States has not called for the run-off to be scrapped. But Gallegos said the world is taking note and if the Mugabe government does not allow a free and fair election it will be held accountable.