US wants evidence of reform in Zimbabwe to give aid

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By Sue Pleming

WASHINGTON, Oct 16 (Reuters) - The United States will not provide development aid to Zimbabwe or lift sanctions until there is firm evidence of long-term political and economic reform, the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe said on Thursday.

"Until then, it will not happen," James McGee told a briefing on Zimbabwe organized by the group Freedom House.

He said there needed to be a return to rule of law, respect for human rights, commitment to a free-market based economy and an end to corruption before the United States would shift its policy on Zimbabwe.

"Once we see concrete evidence that these issue are being lived up to then we will be ready to re-engage Zimbabwe with development assistance," he said, adding that donor nations planned to meet in Canada soon to discuss Zimbabwe's developmental needs.

Targeted U.S. sanctions against embattled President Robert Mugabe and other Zimbabweans whose policies and practices undermined democracy would remain, McGee said. But Washington would continue to provide humanitarian and food aid, which will reach about $186 million this year.

He urged the Southern African Development Community and the African Union to try harder to end the political deadlock in Zimbabwe where Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, are locked in wrangling over who will control key ministries.

Mugabe's party lost its majority in a March 29 election for the first time since independence from Britain in 1980.

A power-sharing deal agreed a month ago is now in danger of collapse over which party will control important cabinet posts, including the finance and home ministries.

McGee said Mugabe's party feared if it lost the finance ministry this would "cut off the ZANU-PF patronage spigot which has enriched" his party and that opposition control of the home ministry would lead to investigations and potential prosecutions for corruption.

The U.S. diplomat said the Sept. 15 power-sharing agreement, brokered by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, was "highly imperfect" but Tsvangirai believed he had to accept it to prevent his supporters from starving to death.

"There were holes in that agreement that were large enough to drive a truck through," McGee said. "What we see now is because the agreement was not tighter." He said he expects Mugabe to continue to stall over control of the ministries.

With unemployment running at more than 90 percent, the world's highest inflation rate and severe food, fuel and foreign currency shortages, Zimbabwe is in a dire economic and political situation.

"Zimbabwe, the former jewel of Africa, is on the precipice," said McGee.

One in four children were malnourished and more than two million people needed food aid, with that number expected to more than double by the end of the year.

(Reporting by Sue Pleming, editing by Chris Wilson)

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