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11/7/04 - ZIMBABWE USING FOOD AS A WEAPON - 2004-11-08

Amnesty International reports that millions of people in Zimbabwe may go hungry in part because the government is manipulating the food supply for political purposes.

In some places, according to Amnesty International, Zimbabweans without ruling party membership cards have been denied access to grain distributed by the government-controlled Grain Marketing Board. The board has a near monopoly on the wholesale trade in and distribution of maize -- the staple food in Zimbabwe. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher underscores the U.S. concern about the Zimbabwe government's use of food for political purposes: "We have found the government trying to curtail donor activity and engagement in Zimbabwe. We've been deeply concerned the government is using its monopoly on food distribution to manipulate food availability for political ends, and that there needs to be another track of food distribution available to people."

Until about six months ago, international food donors were providing relief to the Zimbabwean people. But most of these programs were stopped when the government told the United Nations and other donors that the country no longer needed assistance and began to obstruct independent efforts to assess the food situation. Since then, the government's claim that there are sufficient food resources in the country has been at odds with most available evidence.

It has been estimated that more than two-million rural people in Zimbabwe may need food assistance before next April's harvest. Some two-and-a-half million people in urban areas are also expected to have difficulty getting adequate food.

The government of Zimbabwe is manipulating food shortages to influence the electorate as the country approaches parliamentary elections scheduled for next year. Such manipulation calls into question Zimbabwe's stated commitment to conduct free and fair elections. State Department spokesman Boucher says the U.S. will continue to coordinate with the U-N and other donors to evaluate Zimbabwe's food needs and get food to those truly in need.