- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 21, 2002

The Bush administration said yesterday it no longer considers President Robert Mugabe to be the legitimate leader of Zimbabwe and called upon "the body politic" of his country "to go forward and correct that situation."

At a news conference where 190,000 tons of new U.S. food aid to southern Africa was announced, senior Bush administration officials blamed Mr. Mugabe for a food crisis in his country and said, "The political status quo is not acceptable."

"We do not see President Mugabe as the democratically legitimate leader of the country," Assistant Secretary of State Walter Kansteiner told reporters at the State Department.

"So we're working with other countries in the region as well as throughout the world, on how we can, together, encourage the body politic of Zimbabwe to go forward and correct that situation and start providing an environment that would lead to a free and fair election," he said.

Mr. Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980, was re-elected in a March election that was condemned by international observers as rigged.

The United States is working with the European Union to impose financial and travel bans on Zimbabwean officials. Dozens of officials from the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party have been denied visa requests to enter the United States.

"We're continuing to work with the South Africans and the Botswanans and the Mozambicans on what are some of the strategies that we can use to isolate Mugabe in the sense that he has to realize that the political status quo is not acceptable," Mr. Kansteiner said.

He said the United States and some European countries are working with "the civil society" in Zimbabwe, including human rights groups and independent journalists, to encourage change.

Mr. Kansteiner said the actions of the Mugabe government threaten to turn a regional drought into a famine not only in Zimbabwe but also in Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland.

Mr. Mugabe has ordered the takeover of thousands of white-owned farms, which are being handed over to his political supporters, former independence war veterans, military officers and peasants.

The farm disruptions have deeply reduced agricultural output that typically feeds not only Zimbabwe but also its neighbors. Some white farmers have refused to leave their farms and were arrested last week.

"Those farms are all shut down now," Mr. Kansteiner said. "Either they've been confiscated or people are being arrested now. It is madness to arrest commercial farmers in the middle of a drought when they could grow food to save people from starvation," he said.

Mr. Kansteiner said the food crisis is also caused in part by the Mugabe government's decision to fix grain prices so low that no private merchants will import or market food.

Reservoirs in Zimbabwe are full and capable of irrigating food crops, he said. "The problem is that Mugabe's policies are confiscating all the commercial farms."

A U.S. official also accused the Mugabe government of favoring members of its ruling party, known as ZANU-PF, when distributing food.

Despite U.S. differences with Mr. Mugabe, "food aid will not be used for political or economic purposes or as an instrument of diplomacy in an emergency," said Andrew Natsios, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Administration officials said the United States would increase its emergency food contributions to the region to $230 million, which will be delivered to needy people regardless of the political situation in any country.

U.S. food aid is being distributed through nongovernmental relief and church groups, which will give out food on the basis of need, not political affiliation, Mr. Natsios said.

"The only reason why we would not distribute food is if it weren't getting to the poor people who were at risk if it were getting diverted on a massive scale or being abused," he said.

Mr. Natsios announced that the Bush administration was sending 190,000 tons of U.S. food aid to southern Africa in addition to 310,000 tons of food already contributed to the region.

The European Union is expected to donate about 20 percent of the required food for the emergency. Eighty percent of food aid arriving in the region is American, Mr. Natsios said.

The U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance is putting together a $30 million package of aid for medical, health, sanitation, water and immunization needs.

Although there is drought in the region, Mr. Natsios stressed that there is not yet a famine. "We think we've caught it in time," he said.

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