The United States is stepping up its criticism of Zimbabwe's land redistribution program, amid reports of widespread arrests of white commercial farmers who have defied government eviction notices. It is accusing the government of Robert Mugabe of giving seized farms to ruling-party supporters.

The State Department says it is "appalled" that Zimbabwe is continuing what it terms a "senseless campaign" of evicting commercial farmers and farm workers, at a time when many of the country's people are facing possible famine. Briefing reporters, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker called on the Mugabe government to halt what he called its "pursuit of unchallenged power," restore the rule of law, and stop abusing the human rights of its citizens.

"These are reckless and reprehensible actions by the government of Zimbabwe and its supporters, and they're causing further damage to Zimbabwe's international standing and its ability to produce food, at a time when it's declared a national emergency to deal with widespread hunger and possible famine," he said. "We think Zimbabwe's policies and actions have devastated their economy and caused widespread suffering within Zimbabwe, as well as around the region."

The Mugabe government says its land redistribution program is aimed at rectifying the legacy of colonialism in the country, which left one-third of Zimbabwe's arable land in the hands of whites, who make up less than one percent of the population. Spokesman Reeker said the United States supports the idea of land reform, but not in the way it is being been carried out by Mr. Mugabe and his associates.

"The United States has recognized the historical inequities of land distribution in Zimbabwe, and we've supported a rational sustainable and equitable land reform in that country. That is not what's happening there, he said. "Many of the farms seized thus far appear to have been distributed to ruling party officials and to regime insiders, and not to the landless peasants, whose interests Mr. Mugabe pretends to represent."

Despite its policy differences with the Mugabe government, the United States has accounted for about half of the total international food aid committed to Zimbabwe thus far. The U.N. World Food Program estimates that as many as six million people, about half of Zimbabwe's total population, will need assistance in the coming months.