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Top official says administration is considering defying Mugabe and delivering food to starving opposition areas
Andrew Meldrum in Harare
Thursday November 7, 2002
The US government warned yesterday that it might take "intrusive, interventionist measures" to deliver food aid directly to millions of famine-hit Zimbabweans if President Robert Mugabe continues to starve his political opponents.
Washington is considering measures that would challenge Zimbabwe's sovereignty, the Guardian was told by Mark Bellamy, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa. Such drastic measures are being studied because the Mugabe regime is aggravating the effects of a region-wide famine by blocking food from areas which support the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), he added.
"We may have to be prepared to take some very intrusive, interventionist measures to ensure aid delivery to Zimbabwe," Mr Bellamy said by telephone from Washington.
The plan was disclosed in the Zimbabwean state-owned Herald newspaper under the headline "US plans to invade Harare".
A spokesman for Mr Mugabe said other African countries should take heed of "the mad talk of intrusive and interventionist challenges to Zimbabwe's sovereignty. Today it is about Zimbabwe. Heaven knows who is next", he said.
Mr Bellamy, who develops US policy on Africa, said: "We have disturbing reports of food being used as a political weapon by the Mugabe government, of food aid being diverted and food being denied to millions of opposition supporters.
"For the sake of those hungry people it may be necessary for us to undertake intrusive delivery and monitoring of food. The dilemmas in the next six months may bring us face to face with Zimbabwe's sovereignty."
He said Mr Mugabe was "holding his people hostage the way Saddam Hussein is holding his people hostage".
Mr Mugabe and other Zimbabwean officials deny using aid as a political weapon. They maintain that food relief is distributed freely and fairly.
The government has however outlawed the private importation of food, leaving the state grain marketing board with a monopoly on the importation and wholesale deliveries of the staple maize meal. Aid agencies and government critics claim that this gives the marketing board a stranglehold on food availability throughout the country.
The Catholic Agency for Overseas Development has failed to get permission to import 100 tonnes of food aid, which sits at the Beitbridge border post with South Africa. The MDC has also been refused permission to import food.
The marketing board's depots refuse to sell maize meal to people identified as opposition supporters, according to accounts from across the country. In addition, police roadblocks stop the MDC and ordinary individuals from transporting all but the smallest parcels of maize meal to hungry areas, numerous witnesses claim.
Mr Bellamy refused to specify what the US could do to deliver food aid to Zimbabweans against the will of the government, but said the Bush administration was "considering all approaches". Aid experts suggested the possibility of air drops, such as in Sudan and to Kurdish rebels in Iraq.
"At the very least we need to see aggressive, assertive monitoring to ensure that food is being distributed fairly throughout Zimbabwe, in an even-handed, humanitarian way," Mr Bellamy said. "We may have to make hard choices. We will press for food to be distributed freely in all areas of the country. We cannot take government assurances at face value, we must monitor it and confirm it for ourselves."
Washington provides about 50% of the food aid being distributed in Zimbabwe by the UN world food programme.
Zimbabwe was until recently considered the breadbasket of southern Africa, but Mr Mugabe's violent and chaotic land seizures, combined with drought, have resulted in a crippling food shortage.
Zimbabwe is by far the worst affected of the six southern African countries threatened with famine. Of the 14 million people at risk of starvation throughout southern Africa, 6.7 million are Zimbabwean, nearly half the country's population.
Washington's hard stance comes after other warnings from the Bush administration. The US representative to the UN food and agricultural organisation, Tony Hall, visited Zimbabwe last month and criticised the government for preventing respected international charities, such as Save the Children and Oxfam, from distributing food relief.
The US does not consider Mr Mugabe to be the "democratically legitimate leader of his country", Walter Kansteiner, US assistant secretary of state for Africa, said.
He cited widespread state-sponsored violence in the March presidential election, and evidence of large-scale vote-rigging.
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