Mugabe blocks $30m relief appeal as UN warns of growing food crisis

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The World Food Programme yesterday warned that a sharp increase in grain prices had left the UN agency short of the funds it needed to feed millions of hungry people in the area. "We need food and cash now," Mike Sackett, the WFP regional director for southern Africa, said. "Many who have already eaten their food reserves are surviving on wild foods and relying on other desperate coping strategies.

"Due to an immediate funding shortfall of $187m for feeding programmes in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, only a fraction of those who require assistance will receive it."

The UN planned to launch an emergency appeal for Zimbabwe last week, after a special envoy, Anna Tibaijuka, reported back on the impact of President Mugabe's demolition of shanty towns and slums.

Her report to UN secretary general Kofi Annan on Operation Murambatsvina (Drive out Filth) said at least 2.4 million people had been affected by the operation, which made 700,000 people homeless or jobless. The Zimbabwean opposition said supporters in its urban strongholds were targeted.

But the Zimbabwean government rejected the UN study and decided the UN appeal "cannot be acceptable because it is based on Tibaijuka's flawed report."

Jan Egeland, the head of the UN's humanitarian arm, said lack of agreement by Harare meant the appeal was on hold. "It's hard to understand why we can't help these people," he said. "The government disagrees with the flash appeal, or with our working with certain NGOs [non-government organisations], and it disagrees with the numbers (of people affected."

The WFP says it urgently needs donations now because it can take up to four months to move food. "Donations are needed urgently if we are to reach the neediest before the beginning of the lean season," Mr Sackett said.

The "lean" season in southern Africa lasts from December until the March harvests. But this year, there were price increases between April and July of up to 71 per cent in some markets in southern Malawi alone. In Zimbabwe, only about 100,000 needy people are being helped by NGOs and the UN at 50 sites around the country.