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More US Food Aid for Zimbabwe in Spite of Disagreement with Mugabe - 2002-08-20

The United States is committing additional food aid to combat the threat of famine in drought-stricken southern Africa. Bush administration officials say policies of the government of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe are making the situation in the region much worse.

In spite of the running dispute with the Mugabe government over its confiscation of white-owned commercial farms, the United States has been by far the single biggest contributor of food relief in the region. And the Bush administration Tuesday announced an additional commitment of 190,000 tons of food aid, mainly corn, vegetable oil and soy flour.

At a briefing here, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development Andrew Natsios said he thinks the international response will prevent a full-scale famine. But he said the closure of Zimbabwe's highly productive commercial farm network has deprived, not only Zimbabwe but the broader region, of what has been an "insurance policy" against widespread hunger.

"Typically, when there's a drought, those farms have produced the food that has been used to feed the people on commercial food markets, on the private food markets," explained Mr. Natsios. "Those farms are all shut down now. Either they've been confiscated or people are being arrested now. It is madness to arrest commercial farmers in the middle of a drought when they could grow food to save people from starvation."

Mr. Natsios also said ill-advised government price-control and exchange-rate policies have all but halted the country's regular food-import business.

He also accused the Mugabe government of steering the food aid that it has been handing out to members of the ruling party, which he said is a "gross violation" of the traditional norm of not politicizing the distribution of emergency food aid.

The U.S. foreign aid chief was joined at the press event here by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Walter Kansteiner, who said the political status quo in Zimbabwe, where Mr. Mugabe holds power after disputed elections in March, is unacceptable.

Mr. Kansteiner stopped short of endorsing an outright policy of "regime change" as the Bush administration has advocated in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, but he said the United States does not consider the current government in Harare as legitimate.

"We do not see President Mugabe as the democratically-legitimate leader of the country," he went on to say. "The election was fraudulent, and it was not free and it was not fair. So we're working with other countries in the region as well as throughout the world on how we can in fact, together, encourage the body politic in Zimbabwe to in fact go forward and correct that situation, and start providing an environment that would lead to a free and fair election."

The Bush administration has barred travel to the United States by members of the ruling circle in Zimbabwe and Mr. Kansteiner said it may tighten financial restrictions against the Harare leadership as the European Union did last month.

However, he ruled out a trade embargo against the country, calling that a "blunt instrument" that would hurt ordinary Zimbabweans already suffering from the drought.

The new aid commitment announced here brings the total amount of U.S. food delivered or pledged this year to nearly 500,000 tons, valued at $230 million.

That is about half the total amount the U.N.'s World Food Program has sought from international donors to deal with the southern African drought, the worst in a decade.

The U.N. estimates that nearly 13 million people in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Swaziland, Mozambique, Malawi and Lesotho will be in need of humanitarian food aid between now and next year's March harvest.