Aid group ordered to suspend operations by Zim govt

The aid group Care International said on Tuesday the Zimbabwean government has halted its operations in the country for allegedly campaigning for the opposition.

At least two other aid groups also said they had been told to curb their activities in Zimbabwe.

Care International’s Africa communications director, Kenneth Walker, said that at a meeting on Friday with Social Welfare Minister Nicholas Goche the group was ordered to suspend its activities immediately.

Walker said the suspension is pending an investigation into alleged political activity by staff members in support of the opposition before March 29 elections.

Walker said the organization categorically denies it encourages or tolerates political activity by staff.

”We have a very strict policy against political activity,” he said.

The organisation provides aid to about 500 000 Zimbabweans and was to resume food distribution this month to about one million people, Walker said.

Zimbabwe, once a breadbasket of southern Africa, now struggles to feed its people without international assistance.

Critics blame President Robert Mugabe’s land reform policies for the country’s economic collapse, which has left millions of Zimbabweans unable to afford food and other essentials.

There are widespread fears Mugabe will try to steal the election when he faces opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in a June 27 presidential run-off.

Rights groups have criticised the violence and intimidation in the run-up to the vote, in which more than 50 opposition supporters have been killed. Thousands have been driven from their homes, especially in rural areas, where Mugabe lost much support in the first round of voting.

On Tuesday Mugabe accused the West of using non-governmental organisations to channel funds to the opposition.

”Further, these Western funded NGOs also use food as a political weapon with which to campaign against government, especially in the rural areas,” he told a UN food summit in Rome.

The United States slammed the decision to halt Care’s work, saying it was a ”tragedy” and showed a ”hardened indifference on the part of the Zimbabwean government to the plight of its people”.

”It is a cruel irony that this is taking place while President Mugabe is in Rome feigning interest in the issue of food security,” United States State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington on Tuesday.

Walker said Care staff were alleged to have distributed brochures in support of the opposition and to have threatened to withhold food aid from Mugabe supporters.

He said Care had asked for — but not received — details of the allegations including ”names and dates”.

Rachel Pounds, Zimbabwe director for Save the Children, said they were told by a local official in a rural area to suspend work, but that other work was continuing.

”We weren’t told anything specifically about why,” she said.

An official of Atlanta-based Asap-Africa said his organisation had been asked late last week to pull its dozen or so field workers out of rural areas.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter was sensitive, said his organisation had complied and that such requests were typical at election time.

He expected to resume work normally at the end of the month, but said Zimbabwe officials had given no specific time or reason for the restrictions.

Asap has been working in Zimbabwe since 1994 and has saving and lending, teacher training and HIV/Aids programmes in the country.

World Vision said its Zimbabwe operations remain unaffected by the ”crackdown on NGOs”.

However, it said in a statement that it has minimised ”exposure to risk by maintaining minimal activities” and was monitoring the situation closely.

Also Tuesday, civil and human rights groups predicted more violence after the runoff takes place, saying they do not believe President Robert Mugabe will step down if he loses.

However, it is ”critical” for the election to go ahead so a winner can emerge, Gorden Moyo, from the civil rights group Bulawayo Agenda, said in South Africa.

”Mugabe will not transfer power to the winner,” Moyo predicted.

And Amnesty International called for the release of Jenni Williams, Magadonga Mahlangu and 12 other activists from the organisation Women of Zimbabwe Arise.

The women were arrested May 28 after holding a peaceful demonstration in Harare.

They have been denied bail and are been held in harsh conditions, the London-based watchdog said.

Meanwhile, three South Africans drivers for Sky News television were sentenced on Tuesday to six months in jail in Zimbabwe for illegally possessing broadcasting equipment allegedly used to defy a ban on Western coverage of elections in March.

Most main Western media organisations were banned by the government from covering Zimbabwe’s March elections. – Sapa-AP

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