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US to Foster Democratic Change by Peaceful Means in Zimbabwe - 2002-08-21

There was more sharp rhetoric exchanged between the United States and Zimbabwe Wednesday over that country's eviction of white commercial farmers. However, Bush administration officials dismissed the notion the United States would use anything more than persuasion to bring about a change of government there.

Comments Tuesday from the State Department's top official on Africa, Walter Kansteiner, that the United States finds the political status quo in Zimbabwe "unacceptable" prompted media suggestions that the Bush administration equates that country with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, where the stated U.S. policy is for "regime change."

However, officials here say there is no comparison between the absolute dictatorship in Baghdad and the situation in Harare, where they say democratic institutions still function despite "tainted" elections in March that gave President Robert Mugabe another six years in office.

The officials say the U.S. approach will be to support and encourage independent media outlets, human rights advocates and other elements of a pluralistic society in Zimbabwe, and to prod neighboring governments to press for democratic change there.

The Bush administration this week stepped-up its persistent criticism of the Zimbabwe government, saying it has exacerbated the regional hunger crisis by closing down what had been a productive network of white-run commercial farms.

A Zimbabwean spokesman Wednesday accused the United States, and Britain, using of "bullying tactics" in an effort to frustrate what was termed the country's "quest for social and economic justice" through land redistribution.

That in turn drew a rejoinder from State Department spokesman Philip Reeker, who said the Mugabe government's "senseless" campaign of farm seizures is causing extreme hardship.

"It's really a fact that Zimbabwe has been reduced to its current state largely due to the government of Zimbabwe's ill-considered land reform program," he said. "They have distributed food selectively to exclude political opponents, they've politicized food assistance, and this is truly an outrage and the Zimbabwean government should be ashamed of what they're doing to their own people."

State Department officials say the situation in Zimbabwe, and the broader issue of drought-related hunger in the region, will be a major issue for Secretary of State Colin Powell on his trip to Africa early next month.

The secretary is expected to have bilateral meetings with several African leaders on the sidelines of the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, which Mr. Powell will address on September 3. He goes on from South Africa to Angola and Gabon in a trip spanning six days.

In Angola, the officials say Mr. Powell will meet President Jose Eduardo do Santos and visit a displaced-persons camp in a show of U.S. support for efforts to resettle the millions of people left homeless by years of civil warfare that ended with last April's cease-fire between the government and UNITA rebels.

The secretary will have talks in Libreville with Gabon's President Omar Bongo, and salute his ambitious plans to set aside about ten per cent of the country's territory for parks and reserves to protect the Congo River basin eco-system.