The United States has re-iterated its criticism of the Zimbabwe government's land-redistribution efforts, saying the confiscation of white-owned farms is contributing the growing hunger crisis in the region.
The Bush administration has been a persistent critic of the government of President Robert Mugabe for what it describes as "fundamentally-flawed" elections that extended Mr. Mugabe's hold on power in March, and more recently its prosecution of independent journalists. And it has renewed its criticism of the Harare government's land policy, saying it is adding to the severity of southern African food shortages that relief agencies say are the worst in a decade.
The U.S. comments came as nearly 3,000 white commercial farmers in Zimbabwe faced a midnight Monday deadline local time to cease operations under Mugabe government's so-called "fast-track" seizure program to redistribute farmland to landless blacks
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States is not opposed to the principle of land reform in Zimbabwe. However, he said the way the government has gone about it, with "chaotic and often-violent" seizures of privately-owned farms, has greatly compounded what he said was the country's "worsening" social, economic and political crisis. "Government-backed land seizures have resulted in numerous deaths and serious human rights abuses," he said. "It has also greatly exacerbated the food crisis in Zimbabwe and southern Africa much more broadly. We continue to support rational, sustainable and equitable land reform in Zimbabwe. Very sadly, that's not what's happening."
The government's controversial land reforms turned violent two years ago, as government supporters began occupying white owned farms and demanding they be turned over to landless blacks. Whites make up less than one percent of Zimbabwe's population but until recently have owned about a third of the country's most productive farmland.
Critics have said Mr. Mugabe has speeded up land confiscation to bolster sagging political support and deflect attention from the country's economic problems including widening food shortages. It's estimated that half the country's population of 12 million could require outside food aid later this year and in 2003.