Zimbabwe in a state of 'meltdown', UN warns

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The Independent Online

Zimbabwe is in a state of "meltdown" because of the Aids virus and food shortages, the United Nations' head of humanitarian aid has warned.

Jan Egeland also severely criticised the president, Robert Mugabe, for rejecting an offer of temporary shelter for nearly a million people left homeless by the government's slum demolition campaign.

Mr Egeland said the campaign had been a criminal act, and that those behind it should face charges.

Speaking to journalists after a four-day tour of the country, which was once known as the bread basket of Africa because of its rich natural assets and stable economy, Mr Egeland said the situation for most Zimbabweans, already "extremely serious," was "deteriorating".

"When life expectancy goes from more than 60 years to just over 30 years in a 15-year span, it's not just a crisis, it's a meltdown," he said, pointing to "the Aids pandemic, the food insecurity, the total collapse in social services".

He added that Mr Mugabe's decision to reject a UN offer of tents for hundreds of thousands homeless peoplewas "puzzling".

About 700,000 people are lacking adequate shelter after Mr Mugabe embarked on a crackdown on informal settlements known as "Operation Drive-Out-Trash".

Although the government said the exercise was meant to provide people with better accommodation and reduce inner-city crime, it later became clear the operation was aimed at pre-empting opposition-led mass uprisings.

Many victims of the operation were forcibly transferred to rural areas and continue to sleep in the open or under makeshift plastic roofs.

"This disastrous eviction campaign was the worst possible thing, at the worst possible time," said Mr Egeland. "It's a criminal act to bulldoze someone's home who owned their land - there should be prosecutions."

Mr Mugabe, who last week agreed to let the UN provide food aid to some three million people over the next year, rejected the UN's offer of tents, saying that the UN should either build permanent houses or stay away. Zimbabweans, added his spokesman. George Charamba, were not "tent people".

Despite the government's claims that it is building temporary shelter to house those left homeless by the operation, less than 1 per cent of the targeted 200,000 units have been built. And even for these buildings, proof of membership of the ruling Zanu-PF party and a huge deposit is required before taking occupancy, effectively ruling out the poor victims of the slum demolitions campaign.

Mr Egeland was launching an appeal for $276m (£158m) to help the homeless, hungry and Aids sufferers in Zimbabwe. He insisted that, while they might not agree with the government's policies, other countries still had a moral obligation to help the ordinary people.

n Zimbabwean security officials have seized the passport of one of the country's leading newspaper publishers yesterday, apparently under a new law allowing the government to block travel of its critics.

Trevor Ncube, who owns Zimbabwe's largest private newspaper group and also publishes South Africa's Mail and Guardian newspaper, said his passport had been taken after he arrived at the airport in Bulawayo by an officer from Zimbabwe's Central Intelligence Organisation.

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