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US Renews Criticism of Zimbabwe's Food Aid Distribution - 2002-11-04

The United States has renewed its criticism of Zimbabwe's government over alleged incidents of political interference in the distribution of food aid in that country. About half the southern African country's population is threatened by hunger.

Officials here are not accusing supporters of President Robert Mugabe of systematic looting of food aid and say food distribution and monitoring efforts in Zimbabwe overall have been "fairly successful."

However they say they are concerned about cases of interference, including an incident two weeks ago in which supporters of Mr. Mugabe commandeered some three tons of food aid in Matabeleland South province from a U.N. contractor, and handed it out to loyalists of the ruling Zanu-PF party.

At a briefing here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the incident, which prompted the U.N.'s World Food Program to suspend aid deliveries in the Insiza area of the province, is unacceptable.

"Government troops apparently came in and seized some grain that was being distributed by the World Program and distributed to political supporters," he said. "And we think that politicization of food distribution by the ruling party in the face of an urgent need and real human suffering is a very cynical, a very self-serving response, to a major humanitarian catastrophe. Food donations need to be distributed according to need, not by political affiliation."

Mr. Boucher said the Bush administration is "looking at" ways the United States and other donors can make sure that food aid goes to Zimbabwe's neediest people without any political considerations.

But he declined to address comments attributed to a senior State Department official last week that the United States was considering direct aid to hungry Zimbabweans, without the consent of the Mugabe government if necessary, should food shortages worsen.

The Bush administration, a persistent critic of Zimbabwe's government for its curbs on political dissent, has accused Mr. Mugabe of exacerbating he country's drought-related food crisis with a land reform program targeting the country's white-owned commercial farms.

United Nations and private relief groups say more than 14 million people in six southern African countries are facing starvation in the next several months, including about six million in Zimbabwe, half the country's population.