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UN official: Zimbabwe aid cutoff endangers 2 million, mostly children

UN official: Zimbabwe aid cutoff endangers 2 million, mostly children

At least 2 million people in Zimbabwe face greater risk of starvation, homelessness and disease because the government ordered aid groups to halt operations there, according to the U.N.'s top humanitarian official.
"This is a deplorable decision," said John Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said Friday.
"If voluntary organizations and NGOs are not able to work, humanitarian aid for at least 2 million of the most poor and vulnerable of Zimbabwe's people, particularly children, will be severely restricted, although we will do our best to make up for this," Holmes said. "Clearly, that's a very large number."
Much of the U.N.'s aid in Zimbabwe is funneled through non-governmental organizations.
Holmes' comments came after the United States and Britain warned Friday that Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's regime is using food and the threat of hunger as a weapon to cling to power ahead of the June 27 runoff election.
Zimbabwe's U.N. Ambassador Boniface Chidyauskiku denied those charges.
"There is no use of food as a political weapon. It is the other way around. It is the relief agencies, followed by the U.S. government, that have been using food as a political weapon," Chidyauskiku told The Associated Press.
"They have gone out into the countryside and they have been telling Zimbabweans that if you don't vote for the opposition, if you don't change your vote, there's no food for you," he said. "So it is the United States using food as a political weapon to effect a regime change in Zimbabwe. This is why we have suspended the activity."
On Thursday, aid groups in Zimbabwe were told they could no longer operate there, leaving poor Zimbabweans dependent on the government and Mugabe's party. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change beat Mugabe in the March 29 first round, but fell short of the margin needed to avoid a runoff.
U.S. Ambassador James McGee said Friday that Mugabe's government is distributing food mainly to supporters, but people who support the opposition are offered food only if they hand in identification that would allow them to vote. McGee warned that "massive starvation" will result if the situation continues.
British Development Aid Secretary Douglas Alexander described it in similar terms.
"For Robert Mugabe to use the threat of hunger as a political weapon shows a callous contempt for human life," Alexander said. "For the sake of millions of the poorest and most vulnerable people in Zimbabwe, aid must be allowed to get through."
Holmes stopped short of agreeing with the assessment of U.S. and British officials.
"To describe it as using food as a weapon is a description I wouldn't put on it, at this stage anyway," he said.
In Myanmar, where similar concerns with the distribution of food and aid supplies have been raised, Holmes said the U.N. and other relief operations since the May 2-3 Cyclone Nargis have been "moving in the right direction."
Myanmar's generals restricted foreign aid workers and the flow of food and other supplies for weeks after the storm while conducting a constitutional referendum that critics say increased the military's grip on power.
While there are "relatively few people" among the 2.4 million badly affected by the storm that still have not received any sort of aid, Holmes said, U.N. officials "still recognize that this aid effort needs to be stepped up further."
"I think people are getting to all the main places, although it's not always as easy as it should be," he said. "There's no evidence of starvation at the moment, although as I say many people are still in significant need of aid."