The United States is accusing Zimbabwe of impeding the distribution of food aid to child famine victims in the country's southwestern Matebeleland province. It said policies of the government of President Robert Mugabe have "greatly exacerbated" the country's food problems.
Officials here said government interference is not systematic and that most internationally-donated food aid in Zimbabwe is getting through.
However, the State Department said the Roman Catholic charity, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, has been prevented from distributing food to needy children in the Matebeleland town of Binga for the past five weeks in what is says is the "undisguised politicization" of local aid efforts.
According to U.S. officials, so-called "war veterans" loyal to Mr. Mugabe have prevented the Catholic group from delivering food to needy children in and around the town with the collusion of a top district official, and that local police have refused to intervene.
They say food aid, at one point, was even kept from nearly 30 children hospitalized for malnutrition, and that the blockade has caused local schoolchildren to faint from hunger during classes or to become too weak to attend school at all.
They also said attempts to resolve the matter through intervention by the local Roman Catholic bishop and by the Papal Nuncio in Harare have failed.
A spokesman here called on the Mugabe government to "rectify" the situation in Binga "at once" and to ensure that food distribution is carried out on a non-partisan basis country-wide. He said the episode "makes a mockery" of claims by Mr. Mugabe and other officials that the process would not be politicized.
News reports from Zimbabwe say local officials have barred the commission from the area because they allege it holds anti-government views and is, in fact, an opposition faction. A state-run newspaper in Harare has also accused the opposition Movement for Democratic Change of orchestrating "artificial" food shortages.
International relief groups said as many as six million people in Zimbabwe, half the country's population, are at risk due to food shortages.
The State Department said the southern African regional drought has undoubtedly been a factor in Zimbabwe's food problem.
But it said the situation has been "greatly exacerbated" by government actions, including often-violent seizures of white-owned commercial farms and failed economic policies that have reduced food supplies and sent prices soaring.
The spokesman said the United States will continue to provide food aid to Zimbabwe but will do so, he said, "with our eyes wide open" to the fact that the government bears much of the responsibility for the crisis.
The United States has sent 43,000 metric tons of food aid, worth about $28 million, to Zimbabwe so far this year, and shipments totaling more than twice that amount are to be sent in the coming months.