- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 2, 2002

The United States is considering delivering aid directly to millions of starving Zimbabweans in defiance of the government of President Robert Mugabe if the country's food shortages continue to worsen, a State Department official said yesterday.

With the government's control of the food production and distribution system aggravating the effects of a regional famine, "we may have to be prepared to take some very intrusive, interventionist measures to ensure aid delivery to Zimbabwe," said Mark Bellamy, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

Predicting that Zimbabwe's food shortages could leave up to 5 million people facing starvation, "the dilemmas in the next six months may bring us face to face with Zimbabwe's sovereignty," Mr. Bellamy said.

Zimbabwe is one of six southern African nations facing severe food shortages as the result of a prolonged drought. U.N. and private relief groups say some 14 million people could be affected in the coming months.

The situation has been particularly acute in Zimbabwe, traditionally the region's breadbasket. The United States and European Union have been harshly critical of the government's coercive land-redistribution program, targeting white farmers who are the country's most productive growers.

In addition, the United States and Britain have imposed targeted sanctions on Mr. Mugabe and other senior Zimbabwean officials for recent laws curtailing press and political freedoms and for violence targeting the country's political opposition.

Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Walter Kansteiner in August said the United States did not recognize Mr. Mugabe as the "democratically legitimate leader of his country," after parliamentary elections in March that were widely condemned abroad as rigged.

Mr. Kansteiner said the Bush administration was working with Zimbabwe's neighbors to "isolate" the Mugabe regime, but U.S. officials have been frustrated by the unwillingness of South Africa and other regional powers to intervene in Zimbabwe.

Mr. Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since he led it to independence from Britain in 1980, contends that the land-reform programs are needed to redress inequities dating back to colonial times and give millions of landless blacks a homestead.

A group of Zimbabwean opposition figures from Matabeleland, a region of the country where opposition to Mr. Mugabe was particularly intense, seconded accounts by private relief groups that the Mugabe government has channeled scarce grain and other foodstuffs to political supporters.

The opposition leaders, during a visit to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, spoke of roadblocks in which government supporters confiscated food, of local tribal chiefs threatened with food cutoffs if they did not cooperate, and of government food-marketing monopolies that blacklisted districts where opposition candidates did well.

"Food has been politicized. [Tribal] chiefs have been politicized. All the food-distribution system is in the hands of [government party] officials," said Johnson Mnkandla, a regional magistrate in Bulawayo, the largest city in the province of Matabeleland.

"The distribution structure that exists does not benefit the Zimbabwe people, only supporters of the government," he said. "In some ways, we would be better off without international food aid at all."

Mr. Bellamy said the Bush administration was "considering all approaches" to Zimbabwe's deepening crisis, saying he hoped the United Nations, private relief groups and Zimbabwe's neighbors could pressure the Mugabe government to open aid channels throughout the country and permit international monitoring of aid deliveries.

"It's safe to predict that the situation in Zimbabwe is going to get a lot worse and that there will be no change unless outside forces prove to be the catalyst," he said.

The State Department official even compared Zimbabwe to Iraq, saying Mr. Mugabe "was holding his people hostage the way Saddam Hussein is holding his people hostage."

With a new planting season approaching, international aid experts say the situation in parts of Zimbabwe is increasingly desperate.

U.N. relief officials on Tuesday reported "serious malnutrition problems" on the rise among Zimbabwean children, while the amount of grain being imported through the official Grain Marketing Board "is insufficient in comparison to national consumption requirements."

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 94 percent of Zimbabwe's farmers in September lacked cereal seeds to plant for the next growing season.

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