updated 12/9/2005 2:07:27 PM ET 2005-12-09T19:07:27

In a personal attack, President Robert Mugabe called a U.N. envoy “a liar” Friday for saying humanitarian conditions in Zimbabwe are nearing meltdown.

U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland, who ended a three-day fact-finding trip Wednesday, expressed alarm about massive food shortages and an AIDS epidemic that is killing an estimated 3,000 people a week.

“The humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe is very serious,” he told reporters after an hour-long meeting Tuesday with Mugabe in the capital of Harare.

Egeland criticized a so-called urban renewal drive that has destroyed the homes or livelihoods of an estimated 700,000 and said the government was frustrating U.N. attempts to assist the displaced.

“He’s a damned hypocrite and a liar,” Mugabe said in an opening address at his party’s three-day annual conference in the western Zimbabwe town of Esigodini.

Mugabe accused Egeland of raising political rather than humanitarian matters, in poor English, when the two met in private Tuesday.

“He is Norwegian, which is why he couldn’t speak proper English,” Mugabe told more than 3,000 delegates of his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front in a two-hour speech broadcast on state television.

Mugabe also accused Egeland of acting on behalf of Britain, which Mugabe has repeatedly claimed is seeking to regain influence over its former colony through its criticism of Zimbabwe’s human rights and democracy record.

“When he left the country, he said nasty things about us,” Mugabe said. “I am going to tell the (U.N.) secretary general not to send us men and women who are not his own but are agents of the British. We don’t trust men from his office any more.”

Economic collapse
Zimbabwe is in its worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1980. The agriculture-based economy collapsed under the pressure of years of erratic rains and the seizure of thousands of white-owned commercial farms for redistribution to black Zimbabweans.

Members of Mugabe’s own party have expressed concern. Chairman John Nkomo warned delegates Friday the country’s economic woes threaten to unravel its political gains since independence.

The demolition campaign — dubbed Clear Out Trash — compounded the misery of a people already reeling from critical food shortages, soaring inflation and unemployment, according to U.N. officials.

Opposition leaders accuse the government of seeking to break up their strongholds among the urban poor. But the government maintains the mass evictions, accompanied by thousands of arrests, were necessary to eradicate disease-ridden slums and flush out black market traders.

Mugabe insisted Friday that humanitarian conditions were worse elsewhere in Africa. He thanked regional leaders for their support against what he called British imperialism. And he said his government was looking east to Asia for new friends who can “stand by us” at the United Nations and other world bodies.

He also took a swipe at Australia, one of his harshest critics, saying it had wiped out its own indigenous people.

“If any country has to be put before a tribunal dealing with human rights, Australia must be that country,” Mugabe said.

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