Mugabe's regime admits Zimbabwe's people are starving

But non-governmental organisations (NGOs) say the figure is grossly understated and agree with a World Food Programme estimate that more than four million Zimbabweans need urgent food assistance.

Mr Mugabe stunned his countrymen at a recent United Nations summit in New York when he paraphrased Marie Antoniette by telling reporters that Zimbabweans who cannot find the staple maize meal, which is in short supply, could have potatoes instead. A bag of potatoes costs about £20 and is out of reach of many Zimbabweans. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) on Tuesday said the country was in virtual economic collapse with 70 percent unemployment and 265 per cent inflation.

The Mugabe regime made a turnaround yesterday with government official Sydney Mhishi saying it was about to feed at least 2.2 million starving people.

The main opposition party has urged Mr Mugabe's regime to swallow its pride and appeal for help.

Despite having no foreign currency, Mr Mhishi said the government would import 222,000 tons of maize. He did not say where it would find the money. Sugar and fuel are also in short supply. Ox-drawn ambulances have replaced petrol-powered vehicles.

In its report issued after a fact-finding mission, the IMF warned on Tuesday that Zimbabwe's economy was in a state of virtual collapse with economic growth crashing, inflation rampant and poverty soaring.

"Directors observed that without a bold change in policy direction, the economic outlook will remain bleak, with particularly detrimental effects on the poorest segment of the population," the report said.

One NGO worker said the "regime is sleepwalking to disaster". "The sooner they open their eyes and do the right thing the better."

Kofi Annan has pledged to send an envoy to Zimbabwe in November to break the impasse between the Mugabe government and international donors.

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