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Fuel Shortage in Zimbabwe Creates Havoc for Commuters - 2002-10-03

Zimbabwe all but ran out of fuel Thursday. For the first time in a year, long lines for gasoline can been seen throughout the capital and the second city Bulawayo. Those worst hit by the fuel crisis are commuters who must wait hours to get to and from work.

Thousands of Zimbabweans were late for work Thursday because of the fuel shortages, which are likely to continue, despite reports there is fuel outside Harare.

According to sources in the petroleum industry, there are millions of liters of fuel in storage, but Zimbabwe does not have the foreign currency to release it for distribution.

Proprietors of gasoline stations around Harare say they have not been told why fuel has dried up, or when normal supplies will resume.

The government says shortages of gasoline and diesel are caused by hoarding.

Last year, President Robert Mugabe secured 70 percent of Zimbabwe's gasoline and diesel needs from Libya. Libya, whose leader, Muammar Gaddafi, has close ties with Mr. Mugabe, accepted payment in Zimbabwe's currency, which has little value outside the country.

But other countries are not being as generous as Libya. Libya ships its fuel to Zimbabwe by way of Mozambique, which then pumps it from the port of Beira to Zimbabwe. However, before Zimbabwe can claim the fuel, Mozambique has been demanding payment in foreign currency.

On several occasions in the last year, fuel briefly ran short, because Mozambique had not been paid.

Last month, Mr. Mugabe visited Libya, and the state-controlled media said another year's contract had been signed.

Financial analysts cite two possible reasons for the present fuel shortage: either Libya now wants to be paid in hard currency, or Mozambique has not been paid port dues and pumping fees.

If either or both these reasons are behind the fuel crisis, then Zimbabwe is in a deeper economic crisis than ever before. Zimbabwe has no foreign currency and its dwindling mineral exports are held up in South Africa because of a strike at the port of Durban.

Meanwhile, donor agencies are concerned that, if the fuel problem is not sorted out quickly, their food deliveries to hungry Zimbabweans in remote parts of the country will be interrupted.