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Aid Agencies Hopeful Following Zimbabwe Power-Sharing Accord

Humanitarian agencies in Zimbabwe have welcomed Monday's power-sharing agreement between the government and opposition. They hope it will allow them to accelerate food deliveries to millions of Zimbabweans after months of disruption. VOA's Scott Bobb reports from our Southern Africa Bureau in Johannesburg.

International relief agencies say it is too early to know whether the new government of national unity in Zimbabwe will change regulations regarding humanitarian efforts.

But World Food Program spokesman, Richard Lee, says it a positive development. "Any political settlement will hopefully increase political stability within the country and that should make it easier for the World Food Program and our NGO [non-governmental organization] partners to operate out on the ground," he said.

The WFP says several million Zimbabweans need food aid now and more than five million, about one-half of the population, will need assistance by the end of this year.

Distributions were disrupted for three months after the government of President Robert Mugabe suspended the operations of relief organizations. The government accused them of favoring the opposition during the presidential runoff campaign, a charge they denied.

Mr. Mugabe won the runoff after opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew saying state-sponsored intimidation had killed more than 100 of his supporters. The two sides signed a power sharing accord Monday after months of negotiations.

The ban was lifted at the end of last month and aid groups were told to register again. A spokesperson for the Oxfam food relief agency, Caroline Hooper-Box, says since then her agency has been scrambling to catch up.

"The suspension on our field operations was lifted about 10 days ago, so we have got back into the field immediately," she said. "Obviously it has had an impact on the poor and vulnerable communities we work with, the fact that we have not been able to get in to those areas for more than three months."

But she says the registration process has been slow and many local relief groups still cannot operate. She hopes the new government will speed up the process.

Several years of drought have caused food shortages across southern Africa. In Zimbabwe, the shortfall has been aggravated by a declining economy, hyper-inflation and shortages of many goods.

Lee of the WFP says that in addition, the government has failed to provide farmers with necessary supplies.

"Farmers are not able to access the right seeds, the right fertilizer, the right tools," he said. "Hopefully we can get into a situation where farmers will be provided with this through support from the international community, or from the new government."

Experts say other sectors of Zimbabwe's decayed infrastructure, such as roads and railways, water and fuel deliveries, must also be revitalized in order to reduce the need for emergency aid.

Western governments say they are waiting to see whether the power-sharing accord is implemented before they reconsider their economic sanctions and aid restrictions.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, in remarks after the accord was signed, noted the planting season was near and said it is time for African nations to step forward with aid.

"We must get the seeds," he said. "We must get the fertilizer. We must get the fuel. We must get the implements. As matter of urgency I am quite certain that as a region and a continent we can do that."

He concluded that the challenge would also provide an opportunity for Africans to demonstrate that they are able to take care of their own problems.