Video: Controversy at the Italy food summit

updated 6/3/2008 4:47:51 PM ET 2008-06-03T20:47:51

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, whose authoritarian rule has brought widespread hunger to his country, defended his policy of seizing land from whites on Tuesday, saying he is undoing a legacy of Zimbabwe's former colonial masters.

Mugabe spoke to world leaders at a U.N. summit on the global food crisis against a backdrop of sharp criticism over his participation.

Some delegations, including those of the United States, Britain and the Netherlands, said they wouldn't talk to Mugabe at the three-day summit at the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

Once hailed as a hero of African liberation, Mugabe has come to be widely reviled for presiding over the collapse of Africa's one-time bread basket into a nation where millions go hungry.

His government is accused of cracking down on political opposition ahead of a presidential runoff later this month that threatens to unseat him after 28 years in power.

And on Tuesday, the aid group Care International announced that it had been ordered to suspend its operations in Zimbabwe after the government accused it of campaigning for the opposition. The group, which provides aid to about 500,000 Zimbabweans, denies that it encourages or tolerates political activity by staff.

Mugabe's defiance
But at the conference, Mugabe struck a defiant tone — accusing Western powers of maneuvering to bring about "regime change" in Zimbabwe.

He contended that while land reform was "warmly welcomed" by most of his people, it has "elicited wrath from our former colonial masters."

"The United Kingdom has mobilized her friends and allies in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand to impose illegal economic sanctions against Zimbabwe," he said.

Although Mugabe pins much of his nation's plight on the sanctions, the measures are narrowly targeted at him and his allies. Humanitarian aid, with the Europeans the biggest donors, continues to flow, but is channeled through aid groups instead of the government.

"I find it very cynical that someone who has driven people in his country into hunger and the country into ruin dares to show up at such a conference," German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, who is representing her country at the meeting, said on ZDF television Tuesday.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Mugabe's "misrule" serves as "an example of what not to do in terms of managing agricultural and food policy."

Mugabe was staying at a posh hotel near the top of Rome's Via Veneto, an elegant street lined with chic cafes.

The summit, which opened Tuesday, is hoping to solve the short-term emergency of hunger caused by soaring prices, and to help poor countries grow enough food to feed their own.

Easing world crisis
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on nations to minimize export restrictions and import tariffs to help the poor cope with dramatically escalating food prices. He said world food production must rise by 50 percent by 2030 to meet increasing demand.

High fuel costs, speculation, increased demand for meat and dairy products in emerging nations like India and China, and the conversion of crops into biofuel have been blamed for skyrocketing food prices.

The soaring prices have widened hunger and sparked riots and protests in several countries in Africa and Asia.

"Some countries have taken action by limiting exports or by imposing price controls," Ban said. "They only distort markets and force prices even higher."

U.N. officials said on Monday that they also intend to request that the United States and other nations phase out subsidies for food-based biofuels, including ethanol. But in his speech Tuesday, Ban only called for "a greater degree of international consensus on biofuels."

That, however, could be difficult: Participants do not even agree on how much a role biofuels play in driving up prices.

"It offends me to see fingers pointed against clean energy from biofuels, fingers soiled with oil and coal," said Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, whose country's sugar cane has long been used to produce ethanol. He insisted that biofuels "are not the villain menacing food security in poor countries."

Subsidiaries and insecurity
Silva was alluding to wealthy nation's own farm subsidiaries as a key culprit for food insecurity.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer told reporters he was "surprised" by Silva's comments.

Schafer recently criticized Congress for approving a five-year farm bill generously subsidizing U.S. farmers at a time when much of the world is suffering from high food prices.

A previous summit pledge to halve world hunger by 2015 has proven elusive. FAO director-general Jacques Diouf told delegates that at the current rate the target "would not be reached in 2015 but in 2150."

The summit also saw Iran's President Mahmoud Ahamadinejad lash out at the West for allegedly profiting from the hikes.

Some protesters climbed up the lower tier of the Colosseum and sent down leaflets criticizing the Iranian leader, who repeated calls for the disappearance of Israel.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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