Fri, Jul 06, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Zimbabwe official gatecrashes event, criticizes US envoy

HARSH WORDS Samuel Mhango said the foreign ministry was considering banning speeches at foreign national day functions, US officials said

AP , HARARE

A Zimbabwe foreign ministry official gatecrashed the US embassy's July 4 celebrations on Wednesday to criticize outgoing Ambassador Christopher Dell, saying "diplomats are supposed to be bridge builders not bridge busters."

Samuel Mhango criticized Dell for remarks he made in a brief address on Wednesday on the assault by police of opposition leaders in Harare in March, the country's worsening economic crisis and what Dell called "the growing climate of desperation and oppression" in Zimbabwe.

"We believe ... that national day receptions such as this one are occasions for us to congratulate each other, to say positive things about each other. They are not occasions to attack or abuse each other," Mhango said.

US officials said later Mhango told them the foreign ministry was considering banning speeches at foreign national day functions.

Dell, along with independent economic commentators, have recently cited runaway inflation as the likely cause of full scale economic collapse by the end of the year.

"One wonders what authority some have when giving specific time frames for the meltdown of the Zimbabwe economy. This leaves the impression the meltdown is being engineered from outside Zimbabwe," Mhango said.

The government has repeatedly accused Britain, the former colonial power, and the US of backing a political and economic campaign for "regime change" to bring down longtime ruler President Robert Mugabe.

"Zimbabwe brooks no interference in its internal affairs ... Zimbabweans should be left to solve their own problems," Mhango said, reading from a prepared text.

Dell said afterward Mhango was not invited. He asked to speak at the podium to several hundred guests.

Dell told guests he himself was not invited to Zimbabwe's independence day celebrations on April 18, "so I did not attend. I see the same rules don't seem to apply in reverse."

In the worst economic crisis since independence in 1980, official inflation in Zimbabwe stands at 4,500 percent, the highest in the world, though financial institutions estimate real inflation is closer to 9,000 percent, with acute shortages of food, hard currency, gasoline, medicines and most basic goods.

Shops across the country failed to restock empty shelves with the cornmeal staple, bread, cooking oil, meat, eggs and other basic foods Wednesday after a government crackdown that began last week forcing stores to slash prices by about 50 percent, and triggering stampedes for cheaper goods in towns and cities across the country.

Scores of businessmen have been arrested and nearly 200 shops were charged for defying the government's price edict and overpricing, police said.

Dell's outspoken criticism of government policies has angered Mugabe and his colleagues.

Mhango said he sought an opportunity to respond to Dell.

"It is always fair to have balance," he said. "The government of Zimbabwe will carry out its role of protecting and providing food for its citizens as mandated by the electorate," he said.

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