The United States is stepping up criticism of the government of President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe after a new wave of attacks on white farmers and incidents of press harassment there.

The State Department is condemning what it says are serious human rights abuses and a climate of fear in Zimbabwe, which it says are threatening the economy of the entire region of southern Africa.

The comments in Washington followed a week-long wave of attacks and looting of white-owned farms by pro-government militants in Zimbabwe that forced some 100 farm families to flee and complicated a growing food shortage in the country.

The campaign has been accompanied by what U.S. officials say has been harassment of journalists, including the arrest this week of four staff members of the country's only independent newspaper after it carried a report implicating police in the farm attacks.

At a news briefing in Washington Thursday State Department spokesman Phillip Reeker said the United States is "deeply concerned" about the level of political violence and intimidation in Zimbabwe, and the country's rapid economic decline.

"The situation has taken a toll on the people of Zimbabwe as well as the people in southern Africa as a region, discouraging foreign investment, creating a potential for a refugee crisis and food shortages and reducing trade within the region," said Mr. Reeker. "So we condemn the serious human rights abuses and growing climate of fear and intimidation for which the government of Zimbabwe bears primary responsibility."

Mr. Reeker said the United States will continue along with other concerned countries and international organizations to press Zimbabwe's government to respect the free media, its independent judiciary and legitimate opposition political parties there.

The United States has been a persistent critic of the Mugabe government and the officially-inspired farm attacks, which began early last year.

On his trip to Africa in May, Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly urged Mr. Mugabe who has led the country for more than two decades to step aside in favor of a new generation of leaders when the country holds a presidential election next year.