Britain criticised as obscene the presence of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe at this week’s global food summit in Rome, saying he had inflicted shortages on millions of his own people by his ”profound misrule”.
The leader of the former British colony flew into Rome late on Sunday, making his first official trip abroad since elections condemned by Western and opposition leaders as fraudulent.
He will attend a United Nations summit on soaring food prices and their impact on the world’s poor, starting on Tuesday.
”I think it is obscene and I’m outraged by his attendance,” International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander, who will represent Britain at the summit, told BBC radio.
”We don’t see Robert Mugabe as gaining any legitimacy or credibility from attending this meeting when four million of his own people are now relying on food aid as a direct consequence of his profound misrule of the country,” Alexander said.
The unexpected presence of Mugabe, accused by opponents and Western countries of a conducting a campaign of violence against the opposition, could offer a rare opportunity for direct contacts with Western leaders.
But Alexander and United States Agriculture Secretary Ed Shafer, who is leading the US delegation, said they would not meet Mugabe.
”I’ll neither shake hands with Robert Mugabe nor meet Robert Mugabe … This is not a man with any credibility or any contribution to a discussion on international food,” said Alexander.
Mugabe, facing a June 27 presidential run-off against opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, is in Rome with his wife and a large delegation of officials.
The European Union has a long-standing travel ban on the veteran leader. Since the food summit is taking place under a United Nations umbrella, however, the Rome meeting will be open to him.
About 60 heads of state and government are meeting from June 3 to 5 to discuss global poverty caused by rising food prices.
An Italian politician has announced a sit-in protest in Rome on Tuesday against both Mugabe and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who will be making his first trip to Western Europe as president. The US delegation said it would not meet Ahmadinejad either.
In 2005 Mugabe attended the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s 60th-anniversary celebrations, where he railed against US President George Bush and then-British prime minister Tony Blair, calling them ”international terrorists” and comparing them to Adolf Hitler.
Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980. Electoral commission figures showed Tsvangirai won most votes in the first round of the election, but not enough to avoid a run-off. The opposition complained of vote-rigging.
Zimbabwe’s economy is a shambles. Inflation is 165 000%, unemployment 80% and there are chronic shortages of basic necessities including food and fuel.
About 3,5-million people have fled to neighbouring countries to escape poverty and malnutrition.
Mugabe (84) accuses Western countries of sabotaging Zimbabwe’s economy through sanctions imposed to punish him and top ruling-party officials for alleged rights abuses and election fraud.
Mugabe’s last trip to Europe in December for a European Union-Africa meeting in Portugal was boycotted by the British prime minister to protest the Zimbabwean leader’s participation. — Reuters