- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 21, 2002

The Bush administration said yesterday it may reduce its diplomatic and aid personnel in Zimbabwe to protest the government's "completely unacceptable" response to an incident last week in which a U.S. Embassy employee was beaten by supporters of President Robert Mugabe.
State Department spokesman Philip Reeker dismissed as "utterly without foundation" charges by Zimbabwe's interior minister that U.S. diplomatic personnel were to blame in the Nov. 15 incident, in which two Zimbabwean nationals, one employed by the American embassy in Harare, were severely beaten on a visit to an expropriated farm controlled by allies of Mr. Mugabe.
The "unprovoked attack" is "a serious breach of the Zimbabwe government's responsibilities to safeguard diplomatic personnel in Zimbabwe," Mr. Reeker said.
"Their response will be certainly factored into our ongoing assessments of the safety of our personnel and of diplomatic and humanitarian operations in Zimbabwe," the spokesman added.
The beating is just the latest irritant in rapidly deteriorating U.S.-Zimbabwean relations.
Mr. Mugabe has reacted angrily to U.S. criticisms of his human rights record, his coercive land-redistribution program targeting the country's productive white farmers, and of the government's political manipulation of food and aid distribution in a country where more than half of the 12.5 million population could be facing severe food shortages and famine in the coming months.
A senior State Department official earlier this month said the administration was weighing "intrusive, interventionist measures" to bypass the Mugabe government and ensure food delivery throughout the country, a comment the Mugabe government said was an effort to justify a potential invasion.
Mr. Reeker said yesterday the amount of U.S. aid, which is delivered through U.N. and private relief aid channels, was based on the humanitarian need in the region, not on relations with the government in Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwean Information Minister Jonathan Moyo told the leading state-owned newspaper in Harare that last Friday's confrontation was sparked by "the intrusive and interventionist behavior of U.S. Embassy personnel."
The U.S. government lodged an official protest on Monday after the U.S. group which included an American embassy employee and a British national working for the United Nations were accosted by a group of "war veterans," former members of Zimbabwe's military who have become a crucial support base for the president.
U.S. officials say the group was attempting to document the scale of the food crisis. Zimbabwean officials claim the party was on a propaganda mission, tossing food from their vehicle and then filming the local residents rushing to get it.
The beatings of the two Zimbabwean nationals followed a sharp interrogation of the group. The State Department on Tuesday condemned the "completely ineffective response" of Zimbabwean police after the U.S. diplomat contacted them by cell phone.
The official account of the incident "clearly once again betrays the cynicism of the Mugabe government in Zimbabwe," Mr. Reeker said.
The spokesman said no decisions have been made on whether to pull U.S. diplomatic and aid personnel out of the country, but warned the attacks were of "grave concern to us and to others in the international community."
Mr. Mugabe has blamed a regionwide drought for the recent food shortages, but a report released in South Africa yesterday by a Danish human rights group supported U.S. contentions that at least some of the shortfalls were created by the government for political reasons.
"The threat of being deliberately starved by the government if the opposition won votes was used to profoundly influence vulnerable rural voters in the recent elections," according to the report from Physicians for Human Rights-Denmark, based on three months of interviews and travel inside Zimbabwe.
"If it is not possible to increase nonpartisan food supplies into the country, it is our opinion that starvation and eventually death will occur along political party lines," the group warned.

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