Aid organizations say Zimbabwe order puts AIDS patients at risk

Saturday, June 7, 2008

GENEVA -- Aid agencies in Zimbabwe said Friday the government order for humanitarian groups to suspend work would cut off care and medicine to those living with AIDS.

Aid groups and Western officials also said many in the impoverished African country will starve without food aid, amid allegations that President Robert Mugabe's regime is using food to cement his rule.

On Thursday, Mugabe's government ordered aid groups to suspend field work indefinitely, saying they had violated the terms of their agreement. It has accused at least one group of campaigning for the opposition in the June 27 presidential runoff between Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai.

Zimbabwe's National Association of Non-Governmental Organizations, after an emergency meeting Friday in the capital of Harare, challenged the government to name charitable, aid and civic groups it alleged were in breach of regulations and specify the accusations against them.

"One cruel direct impact of the ban will be that people living with HIV/AIDS will increasingly die since many NGOs provide assistance in the form of home-based care and anti-retroviral medication," the group said in a statement.

More than 1.3 million people are living with AIDS, according to Zimbabwe's report to UNAIDS for the years 2006-2007. More than 15 percent of adults in the country of 12 million are believed to be HIV-positive, the report said.

Starvation is also a concern in what was once a regional breadbasket but now suffers from the world's highest inflation rate that puts the price of staples out of reach. The halting of private aid group operations leaves poor Zimbabweans dependent on the government and Mugabe's party.

The U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, James McGee, said Friday the Mugabe regime is distributing food mostly to its supporters and that opposition loyalists are offered food only if they hand in identification that would allow them to vote in the runoff.

If the situation continues, "massive, massive starvation" will result, McGee told reporters in Washington by video conference from Harare.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the order "a vicious attempt to use food as a political weapon."

"It's just another despicable act in a litany of despicable acts committed by this government against its own people," he said in Washington.

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 said. "This is why we have suspended the activity."

The suspension order hampers aid delivery to more than 4 million people and puts at least 2 million at greater risk of starvation, homelessness and disease, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

John Holmes, who heads the office, called the decision "deplorable."

He said the U.N. would "do our best to make up for this" shortfall, though much of the world body's aid to Zimbabwe is funneled through private groups.

Life expectancy is only 35.5 years in Zimbabwe, and more than half the population lives on less than $1 a day, according to the U.N.

The government order will halt food distribution from the World Food Program for 314,000 "of the most vulnerable people" in June, said Peter Smerdon, the organization's spokesman in Nairobi, Kenya.

Britain's foreign aid chief called the decision to restrict humanitarian agencies' work "indefensible."

"For Robert Mugabe to use the threat of hunger as a political weapon shows a callous contempt for human life," said Douglas Alexander in London. He added that it was "offensive and absurd" for the government to suggest international NGOs were interfering in politics.

Zimbabwe's social welfare minister, Nicholas Goche, said when ordering the aid groups to suspend operations that they were violating the terms of their agreement with the government, according to a brief statement seen Thursday by the AP.

CARE International said earlier this week that it was ordered to stop its aid operations pending an investigation of allegations it was campaigning for the opposition. CARE denies doing that.

CARE International's Africa communications director, Kenneth Walker, said the government order will affect the people "very badly."

"Nobody is going to starve to death tomorrow," he said. "But obviously the longer the suspension remains, the more dire the circumstances become."

The suspension of CARE's activities alone immediately affects half a million Zimbabweans, the U.N. said.

The U.N.'s Children Fund said the decision meant more than 185,000 children would not receive food aid, education and health care. With one child in four an orphan and families struggling with skyrocketing inflation, children already have been paying a heavy toll.

Human Rights Watch said the halt of aid groups' work was not surprising.

"This is part of a campaign. There has been extreme campaign of violence, and torture" against opposition supporters, said Carolyn Norris, deputy director of the Africa division with Human Rights Watch. "This is to intimidate and spread fear before the elections."

Associated Press writers Jill Lawless and Gregory Katz in London, Desmond Butler in Washington, Donna Bryson in Johannesburg and John Heilprin at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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