US ambassador warns of ‘massive starvation’

The US ambassador to Zimbabwe has attacked President Robert Mugabe's regime, saying a lorry carrying American aid destined forchildren was ''hijacked'' by the authorities and the food handed out to pro-government supporters.

The ambassador, James McGee, made his remarks after the 20-tonne consignment of wheat, beans and vegetable oil was impounded and redistributed last week. "This government will stop at nothing, even starving the most defenceless people in the country – young children – to realise their political ambitions," he said.

Mr McGee was posted to Harare a year ago and has been one of the regime's most vociferous critics. He angered the Mugabe camp last month when he took Western diplomats on a tour of hospitals where victims of political violence were being treated. He reportedly paid for some of their treatment.

When Mr Mugabe launched his run-off campaign at the end of May, he threatened to throw out Mr McGee. "Tall as he is, if he continues doing that [meddling], I will kick him out of the country," he told a rally.

But the threat has done little to silence Mr McGee. After US and British diplomats were stopped at a checkpoint at gunpoint last week, he was on CNN within minutes railing against the intimidation campaign coming "directly from the top". And after the Zimbabwean government banned field operations by aid groups last Thursday, he warned of the "massive, massive starvation" that might ensue if food kept being used as a political weapon.

The lorry was already on its rounds in the east of the country when the ban was announced, US aid workers said. Mr McGee said that, at one of the schools on the round, the lorry's driver was approached by police officers and a mob led by an army colonel. The driver was accused of trying to bribe people and taken to a police station in Mutare, where he was greeted by a group, led by the Manicaland governor, Tinaye Chigudu, chanting slogans for the ruling Zanu-PF party, Mr McGee said: "The governor instructed the war veterans to distribute the food to Zanu-PF supporters at the rally. Some police officers tried to intervene to stop the looting. The governor told them, 'Stand down'." Mr McGee said that he hadlodged a complaint to the Zimbabwean Foreign Ministry.