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Zimbabwe Parties Trade Barbs On Food Crisis As Power-Sharing Sours

Zimbabwe's mounting food crisis became intertwined with the country's troubled power-sharing process Thursday as President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF traded barbs with the Movement for Democratic Change of prime minister-designate Morgan Tsvangirai.

Responding to MDC charges that the stalemate in power-sharing over the allocation of cabinet posts is proving fatal to malnourished Zimbabweans, Agriculture Minister Rugare Gumbo alleged in an interview with the state-run Herald newspaper that the culprits were non-governmental organizations which he said were hoarding food.

The Mugabe government in June imposed a ban on NGO food distribution, accusing such organizations of supporting the MDC, and only lifted the ban completely in August.

Government officials have accused Tsvangirai of stubbornly holding out for concessions in the power-sharing talks and delaying the expansion of humanitarian assistance. The MDC for its part has accused ZANU-PF of neglecting the needs of the people.

United Nations food agencies have estimated that 5.1 million Zimbabweans will face hunger and need food assistance by early next year. Meanwhile agricultural experts are writing off the 2008-2009 crop season for lack of seed and fertilizer.

Gumbo told the Herald that Zimbabweans have resorted to eating wild fruits, but said this is not unusual as rural dwellers have always augmented their diet this way.

But the MDC issued a statement accusing Gumbo of hit playing games when people are suffering, saying, "The self-styled minister denies that Zimbabweans are eating wild fruits, adding that the people have been doing this since 'time immemorial.'"

The statement added: "Gumbo should tell the nation when he last had his supper of wild fruits and where ZANU-PF members are enjoying their wild fruit meals."

Spokesman Nelson Chamisa of the MDC formation headed by Tsvangirai said the leader met Thursday with civic groups to brief them on the talks, and rebutted the statement from Gumbo, saying ZANU-PF intransigence is delaying humanitarian assistance.

Despite the growing humanitarian emergency there was little evidence of urgency on the part of the Southern African Development Community, whose committee on politics, security and defense unsuccessfully tried to break the Harare deadlock this week.

South African Foreign Affairs Director General Ayanda Ntsaluba told reporters in Pretoria Thursday that no firm date has been set for a SADC summit to consider the deadlock and propose a solution. Ntsaluba said SADC foreign ministers would meet in Maputo, Mozambique, next week to determine the summit's date and venue.

From Harare, Director Forbes Matonga of Christian Care, one of the United Nations World Food Program's main implementing partners in the country, rejected Gumbo's accusation that NGOs are hoarding food, saying that the process of establishing equitable mechanisms for the distribution of food is a complex process.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of State said it "regrets that six-weeks impasse over the implementation of the September 15 power-sharing agreement for Zimbabwe was not resolved" in the SADC mini-summit held in Harare on Monday.

The statement said the American government "condemned the Mugabe regime's refusal to implement a genuine and equitable power-sharing agreement and its continued use of violence against peaceful demonstrators." Police fired tear gas and dispersed students and women who demonstrated in Harare on Monday to demand that the parties to the power-sharing come to an agreement and form a national unity government.

Washington said it shares the concern of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon about "the negative effect the impasse is having on the people of Zimbabwe, who continue to suffer terribly." Ban issued a statement on Wednesday urging Southern African leaders to take more "decisive" action and for Mr. Mugabe to meet international expectations.

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