Page last updated at 10:33 GMT, Friday, 15 August 2008 11:33 UK

UN plea to Zimbabwe on food aid

A Zimbabwean woman putting maize into a bag
About 80% of Zimbabweans are unemployed, many depending on aid

UN chief Ban Ki-moon has called on the Zimbabwean government to lift restrictions on aid deliveries, to stop "a catastrophic humanitarian crisis".

He said curbs on aid agencies imposed in June meant that less than 20% of 1.5m people in need had received help.

His comments came as Botswana warned it would boycott this weekend's regional summit if a power-sharing deal was not reached to end the post-poll crisis.

Negotiations were adjourned on Tuesday without agreement.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, who will host the summit of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc), has been mediating in the talks.

They have involved President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF, Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and a breakaway MDC faction led by Arthur Mutambara.

The BBC's Letlhogile Lucas in Botswana's capital, Gaborone, says the government took the decision because it did not recognise President Robert Mugabe as the legitimate president of Zimbabwe following his victory in an election that was widely condemned as a sham.

Mr Tsvangirai won the first presidential round in March, before pulling out of a June run-off citing a campaign of violence against his supporters.

Impact on neighbours

"I call on the government of Zimbabwe to fully respect humanitarian principles and the impartiality and neutrality of voluntary and non-governmental organisations, allowing them to operate freely and with unrestricted access to those in need, Mr Ban said in a statement.

President Robert Mugabe in Rome (3 June 2008)
Mr Mugabe is due to attend the Sadc summit in South Africa

Basic foodstuffs, including maize meal and bread, are often in short supply in Zimbabwe, which was once one of Africa's leading agricultural producers.

About 80% of the country's 12.3m people are unemployed and many depend on food aid.

Prior to the food aid ban, many Zimbabweans were already suffering from food shortages and rampant inflation, a situation made worse by the election violence, the UN said.

The government had accused aid agencies of campaigning for the opposition.

Many aid agencies have pulled staff out of rural areas since field operations were frozen by the government.

Earlier this week, Mr Mbeki spoke about Zimbabwe's economic crisis.

"I know the suffering that the people of Zimbabwe are experiencing," he said.

Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans have fled the worsening political and economic situation, many crossing over the borders into neighbouring South Africa, Zambia and Botswana.

Mr Mbeki said he was determined to reach a deal and promised to stay in Zimbabwe for six months to get one if he had to.

Mr Mugabe has blamed the crisis on a Western conspiracy to remove him from power.

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