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Zimbabwe's 'Hunger Season' Stretches Out Toward 2008 Elections

Shelves in some Zimbabwean supermarkets are starting to look less empty, months after being emptied by an ill-conceived government price-cutting drive, but food items are being snatched by black market dealers for sale at much higher prices.

Food experts say that while Zimbabwe has experienced food shortages since 2001, the price controls imposed in July have dramatically worsened the crisis, leaving more than 5 million people across the country in need of food aid.

President Robert Mugabe and his government continue to deny the country needs assistance. United Nations sources said that when he met recently with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, he turned down humanitarian aid including food.

Mr. Mugabe was said to have told Ban that problems in Zimbabwe are as a result of “illegal sanctions” imposed by the United States and other Western countries.

But critics say the shortages reflect bungled land reform and poor economic policies.

A U.N. source said the international organization cannot force humanitarian or food aid upon on a country, if its government declines the offer, but said Mr. Mugabe's position could result in the U.N. declining to issue an appeal to donors.

Meanwhile, ordinary Zimbabweans say they are running from one store to another in search of basic commodities such as bread, flour, mealie meal, cooking oil or sugar.

Western nations including the United States, Britain and Australia continue to provide food aid through the U.N. World Food Program and non-governmental organizations such as the Consortium for Southern African Food Security Emergency, which unites CARE, Catholic Relief Services and World Vision International in aid provision.

With presidential and parliamentary elections due next year, opposition members and other human rights groups say the need for food assistance is now greater and that the use of food as a political tool is already in evidence through out the country.

The Swedish Cooperative Center, a Swedish non-governmental organization, urged the European Union and the WFP to set up an observer force to monitor food aid distribution in Zimbabwe to prevent its politicization. But the WFP said there is no need for an observer force to monitor the distribution of food assistance in Zimbabwe.

For perspective,reporter Carole Gombakomba of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe spoke with Richard Lee, WFP Southern African regional spokesman, and Reverend Forbes Matonga, national director of Christian Care, a main WFP's partner in Zimbabwe.

Matonga said demand for food aid is increasing in rural and urban areas alike.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...