- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 7, 2002

Zimbabwe yesterday accused the Bush administration of using the famine threatening southern Africa as a pretext to invade or undermine the government of President Robert Mugabe.

"The United States is planning to invade Zimbabwe within the next six months on the pretext of bringing relief aid to people who were allegedly being denied food on political grounds," the state-owned Zimbabwe Herald, considered an accurate mirror of government opinion, said in a front-page story yesterday.

The U.S. Embassy in Harare issued a statement denying the accusations, but Zimbabwe army Chief of Staff Gen. Vitalis Zvinavashe told the newspaper the U.S. government was trying to control private relief groups distributing food and aid in the country "and disregard the laws of Zimbabwe."

The comments were the first extended reaction by the Mugabe regime to remarks late last week from a senior State Department official, first reported in The Washington Times and Bloomberg News, that the U.S. government was considering "intrusive, interventionist measures" to ensure the delivery of international aid in the country.

With the Mugabe government accused of channeling food aid away from regions where political opposition is strongest, "the dilemmas of the next six months may bring us face to face with Zimbabwe's sovereignty," said Mark Bellamy, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

Mr. Bellamy said Friday at a Washington forum on Zimbabwe's deepening economic and political crisis the U.S. government still hoped the United Nations, private relief groups and international pressure could open aid channels throughout the country, and no U.S. official has repeated his explicit warnings.

"We believe only the people of Zimbabwe can solve their nation's problems," according to yesterday's embassy statement.

But State Department officials continue to accuse the Mugabe government of politicizing food distribution, fears heightened when Zimbabwean officials seized a shipment of grain from the U.N. World Food Program and distributed it to supporters of Mr. Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party.

Relief organizations and community activists within Zimbabwe have leveled similar charges.

"Politicization of food distribution by the ruling party in the face of an urgent need and real human suffering is very cynical," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday. "It's a very self-serving response to a major humanitarian catastrophe."

U.S. officials say Mr. Mugabe's authoritarian rule, the state monopoly on grain distribution and a coercive land-redistribution program targeting the country's white-owned farms have greatly aggravated the effects of the drought that has hit Zimbabwe and five other countries in the region.

There are about 4.5 million Zimbabweans now needing food aid, and the figure is expected to rise to 6.7 million by March.

Mr. Bellamy warned last week, "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."

But Stan Mudenge, Zimbabwe's foreign minister, said in a television interview that the charges the government was diverting food aid to political supporters was a "fandango of a fairy tale of lies" spread by opposition politicians.

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