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Some NGO Food Distributors to Halt Operations in Zimbabwe

The Zimbabwe government has told some non-governmental organizations involved in food distribution to stop operations. Aid workers have been told they could be arrested if they continue to distribute food without being registered with the government.

Britain's well-known charities Save the Children and Oxfam learned in a newspaper advertisement in the state-controlled press that they have to be registered before they can continue to operate.

As food donors, their registration must be done through the U.N. World Food Program. The Zimbabwe government has turned down applications by some charities that the WFP included in its list presented to the government, including Save the Children and Oxfam.

Those organizations said they are appealing the decision, and had sent all their financial statements and other records for scrutiny by the government, as required.

Both say they are continuing to operate, but are aware that they could be stopped at any moment. They have been involved with Zimbabwe's poor since independence in 1980.

The WFP says it needs at least 14 organizations to assist in delivering food to people who are beginning to die of starvation in some of the driest parts of southern Zimbabwe.

The social welfare ministry will not comment on the situation. But the government says it is drafting new legislation to regulate non-governmental organizations in Zimbabwe.

Political analysts say this legislation is intended to control access to foreign funds by human rights groups.

University of Zimbabwe political scientist John Makumbe says the government will use the new legislation to try close down human rights organizations, particularly the Amani Trust, which monitors political violence. He says the new law will also be used against various charities that were distributing food, particularly those from Britain.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe regularly accuses Britain of supporting the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

The World Food Program has had its own share of problems in trying to acquire and distribute food to rural communities where it is most needed. Sources in the aid community say the Zimbabwe government had, until a week ago, blocked the WFP from expanding its capacity to deliver food to more areas. In addition, the government recently rejected a U.N. initiative to help the private sector import more food.

The United Nations estimates that more than 6.5 million Zimbabweans are in need of food aid.

The aid groups say they are reluctant to speak out in public, not wanting to jeopardize their ability to provide food for the hungry. One agency spokesman said the situation in Zimbabwe is "urgent," and there is no time for bureaucratic delays.