US 'amazed' over Mugabe's invite to Rome

The United States has expressed “amazement” at a United Nations invitation to Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe to address a hunger conference in Rome on Monday to mark the 60th anniversary of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

“I find it amazing they’ve invited Mr Mugabe to speak at the 60th anniversary, who in a way has done so much to hurt the hungry, and who has absolutely turned his back on the poor,” said Tony Hall, US ambassador to the UN food agencies in Rome.

“I find it amazing. What can he possibly say to us at the conference, when he has done so much to hurt his own people? Food has been used as a weapon against his own people,” Hall said late on Friday.

Mugabe, despite a travel ban imposed by the European Union, confirmed his attendance with the organisers on Friday afternoon, an FAO spokesperson said. He is expected to travel to Rome on Sunday.

Nine heads of state, including those from Italy, Brazil, Venezuela, Botswana and Ecuador, will take part in Monday’s ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of the Rome-based UN food agency.

The FAO will use the occasion to draw attention to the plight of the world’s hungry.

Hall, a former Democrat Congressman from Ohio, said he will attend the conference on Monday and listen to Mugabe’s speech.

“He will speak. We will listen. I’m not going to applaud. Nor do I think we should welcome him here. The last thing I want to do as a representative of my country is give him credibility.”

The ambassador said he visited Zimbabwe recently “and I witnessed so many people who were thrown out in the cold”.

“The country used to be a net exporter of food and now a good portion of the people have to be fed,” said Hall, who was on a tour of World Food Programme aid stations in the stricken Southern African country.

Mugabe (81) has been banned from travelling to the European Union since targeted sanctions were imposed on Zimbabwe by Brussels and the US after he won a disputed presidential election in 2002.

He has managed to evade the ban on several occasions, such as the Vatican invitation to attend Pope John Paul II’s funeral last April and for UN conferences.

The US labelled Zimbabwe one of the world’s six “outposts of tyranny” in January and along with the EU maintains a freeze on Mugabe’s financial assets and those of his associates.

Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980, says the US and EU are punishing him for his controversial seizures of 5 000 white-owned farms and their redistribution to blacks.

Hosting a UN conference on food safety in Africa in Harare earlier this month, he defended his policy of land seizure, which many blame for the collapse of his country’s agricultural sector.

“Zimbabwe’s much-vilified land-reform programme is our response to the challenge of empowering more of our people, and therefore creating a wider base of farmers in the country,” he said.

As dignitaries gather for the 60th anniversary in Rome, Hall’s comments on Mugabe’s attendance are likely to further stoke a diplomatic spat over the arrest in Harare of US ambassador to Zimbabwe Christopher Dell.

The US State Department said Dell had “inadvertently wandered into a poorly marked military area” near Mugabe’s house, adding that it had accepted Zimbabwe’s apologies.—Sapa-AFP

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