The United States is angrily protesting the mistreatment of two members of the U.S. embassy staff in Zimbabwe and others who were detained by pro-government activists late last week as they tried to inspect hunger conditions outside the capital, Harare. The incident last Friday underscores the tense relationship between the United States and the government of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, especially over its handing of the regional food crisis.

The State Department is condemning as an "outrage" the incident last Friday in which a members of U.S. embassy team were accosted and held against their will for 45 minutes by a group of so-called "war veterans" southeast of the capital, Harare.

State Department spokesman Philip Reeker says a U.S. diplomat, a Zimbabwean employee of the U.S. embassy, a United Nations worker, and other Zimbawean serving as a guide for the group were stopped by the activists as they tried to determine the extent of food shortages in an area about 25 kilometers outside the capital.

He said the two Zimbabweans in the party were beaten and that the others were subject to "hostile interrogation" in the course of the incident, which also include the theft of official and private items from their vehicle. He said Zimbabwean authorities failed to respond to cell-phone appeals for help from the U.S. diplomat:

"We've condemned this in the strongest possible terms. The government of Zimbabwe has a clear responsibility to protect the safety of diplomatic personnel in Zimbabwe. And these so-called war veterans have long been seen as surrogates for the government and their actions are an outrage," he said. "Equally troubling is the completely-ineffective police response. And we once again call on the government of Zimbabwe to restore the rule of law and respect for the human rights of its beleaguered citizens."

The fact the embassy team was on a hunger fact-finding mission underlines the tension between the Bush administration and the Mugabe government over the food crisis, which has its roots in drought conditions but which the United States also blames on Zimbabwean government policies.

Relief officials say at least half of Zimbabwe's population of 12 million people will face famine conditions over the next several months without large-scale outside aid, much of which has already been pledged by the United States.

Spokesman Reeker said the Mugabe government's "ill-considered" program of seizing white-owned commercial farms "decimated" agricultural output in the country, while its economic policies including unrealistic price controls and an artificial exchange rates have prevented the private sector from playing any "meaningful role" in bringing food into the country.

He also accused the Mugabe government of politicizing the delivery of food to the needy in a number of incidents, and said that to see authorities acting in this way is "quite appalling."