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Hunger as a weapon

OVER THE PAST 23 years, President Robert G. Mugabe's mismanagement has reduced Zimbabwe from a Southern African bread basket to a deadbeat nation teetering on collapse. The economy is in ruins; once-thriving farms are fallow. Now this tyrant is trying to hijack international food aid to his starving countrymen.

According to a recent ultimatum from Mr. Mugabe, international donors must end independent food distribution in Zimbabwe. Instead of using their own networks of churches and civic organizations, they must channel all aid through Mr. Mugabe's government and political machine so that it can be directed to supporters and he can claim the credit.

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This cynical blackmail is part of the 79-year-old Mr. Mugabe's desperate effort to cling to power amid growing gloom.

Zimbabwe is so badly in arrears on its debt payments that it is on the blacklist of both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which have frozen cooperation. Shortages of all kind - from fuel to electricity - are common; inflation is running at 400 percent a year and soaring; the national budget is in chaos.

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All this, Mr. Mugabe insists, is the fault of domestic saboteurs and their international sponsors, particularly Britain, which once ruled the country as Rhodesia.

That's humbug, of course.

A trickle of oil from Libya, courtesy of credit from strongman Muammar el Kadafi, is about all that keeps Zimbabwe afloat these days. In the past, Zimbabwe has reportedly paid for that oil with farms confiscated from white farmers.

In recent months, Zimbabwe has experienced difficulties in paying Libya. If it gains control over aid distribution, tons of donated corn and rice could be simply diverted to Libya as payments for oil, or so critics fear.

Mr. Mugabe's hijack attempt must be prevented.

With other donors, the U.S. government ought to talk sense to Mr. Mugabe, who has yet to implement his ukase. Washington, after all, has pledged to contribute nearly half of the emergency aid needed to feed some 5 million starving people in Zimbabwe before the next harvest comes this winter.

The United States must also intensify contacts with South Africa to force Mr. Mugabe into retirement. If he stays in power, this doctrinaire Marxist may well end up destroying his country.


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