Page last updated at 20:55 GMT, Monday, 2 June 2008 21:55 UK

Eyes on Mugabe at Rome summit

By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Rome

Starving Zimbabwean
Starvation and homelessness is gripping the people of Zimbabwe

While Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe has tried to keep a low profile thus far, he and his entourage have finally emerged into the spotlight from the five-star Ambasciatore, one of Rome's finest hotels.

The restaurant reputedly serves up the very best of Italian cuisine and the wine-cellar is stocked to meet the requirements of the most discerning palates.

But whatever Mr Mugabe and his hand-picked delegation are enjoying, there is no doubt that for the next few days they will be living the sort of life the average Zimbabwean can only dream of.

His companions are acutely aware of how this looks.

One member of staff at the hotel, who did not want to be named, claims the delegation have even brought their own food and chef.

He claimed a row had broken out over the cost of a cup of tea though neither the hotel nor the delegation would confirm the staff member's comments.

Coterie of officials

Mr Mugabe is in the Italian capital for an important UN world food conference being held in response to soaring prices and the growing demand for food.

I think we must state unequivocally that we don't see Mugabe as gaining any legitimacy from attending this meeting when four million of his people require food aid as a direct consequence of his profound misrule of the country
Douglas Alexander, Britain's International Development secretary

Despite facing a presidential run-off against opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai later this month, he is taking several days out here in Rome with his wife and a small coterie of officials.

The European Union has a longstanding travel ban on the veteran leader but he is allowed to attend UN summits.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) that is hosting the summit said all member countries were invited and that it is at the discretion of each member state who they decide to send.

In an interview with the BBC, FAO director general Jacque Diouf refused to be drawn on whether Mr Mugabe's presence here might be unhelpful.

But Britain's International Development secretary Douglas Alexander did not pull his punches.

He labelled Mr Mugabe's presence "highly inappropriate".

"This is a UN meeting taking place on UN premises," Mr Alexander said. "But I think we must state unequivocally that we don't see Mugabe as gaining any legitimacy from attending this meeting when four million of his people require food aid as a direct consequence of his profound misrule of the country."

'Greater cause'

As an invited guest and the head of the Zimbabwe delegation, Mr Mugabe will get the chance later this week to address the summit.

Each leader is offered an opportunity to speak for five to 10 minutes.

In 2005 at a similar conference, Mr Mugabe used that opportunity to launch a stinging attack on American President George Bush and then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, calling them "international terrorists" and comparing them to Adolf Hitler.

He told the major donors not to "foist" their food on his people.

On that occasion he received a round of applause from some African delegations - but times have changed and the response this time will likely be far more interesting.

Mr Mugabe has often dismissed the international concerns for his country and his people, pointing to his greater cause of land redistribution.

But the reality is that because of his policies many Zimbabweans are now desperately hungry and in need of outside food aid.

Inflation is running at over 100,000%, unemployment is at 80% and there is an acute shortage of even the most basic necessities.

On top of that the FAO has pointed to some extremely dry conditions in April which might damage Zimbabwe's maize harvest and further unbalance an already precarious situation.

Papal politics

Mr Mugabe is not the only controversial world leader here at this summit - also attending is the Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - who will be making his first trip to Western Europe as Iran's president - and Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad requested a Papal audience

For Mr Ahmadinejad it is a flying visit - he arrives on Tuesday for the opening ceremony and plans to hold a press conference before flying out the same day.

The Iranian leader's presence poses a dilemma both for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and for the Vatican.

Mr Ahmadinejad, had requested an audience with the Pope.

The request prompted days of painful diplomatic manoeuvring, ending with Pope Benedict taking what is seen as the only available way out - he will not be meeting anyone at the conference.

That leaves other world leaders who were looking forward to meeting the pontiff - including Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva of Brazil and several other African leaders - deeply disappointed.

Zimbabwe blocks 'political' aid
03 Jun 08 |  Africa
Mugabe in Rome - your comments
02 Jun 08 |  Africa

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