(CNSNews.com) - Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has drawn strong criticism for comparing President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to Hitler and Mussolini in a speech to a United Nations food agency.
Beyond what Mugabe said on Monday, some are dismayed that the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) would have invited him to speak in the first place. The autocratic Mugabe is accused of starving his people and using food as a weapon against his opponents.
On Monday, Mugabe was one of nine heads of state taking part in a ceremony in Rome to mark the 60th anniversary of the FAO.
His remarks reportedly drew applause and cheers at times from some of the delegates present.
The U.S. envoy to the FAO, Tony Hall, criticized Mugabe for politicizing an event that focused on feeding the world's hungry, while Blair's spokesman said that nothing the Zimbabwean said would deflect Britain from its view of what was happening in Zimbabwe -- which is anything but a laughing matter.
Australia's ambassador walked out of the chamber beforehand to protest the fact Mugabe was speaking at all, and Canberra on Tuesday described the speech as "absolutely disgraceful."
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said as Zimbabwe was a member of the U.N., it would have been difficult for the FAO not to invite Mugabe. But the Zimbabwean had made "an enormous mistake" by accepting the invitation and then making a speech of that nature, he told Australian radio.
The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish rights group, called Mugabe a "brutal dictator" and said the Hitler comparisons demeaned the victims of the Nazi Holocaust.
Italian media quoted lawmaker Sergio Agroni, a member of a parliamentary agriculture body, as questioning why the country was opening the door to "one of the most terrible dictators and destroyers on the African continent."
Mugabe was in Rome to talk about food "while his fellow citizens are dying in the streets because of lack of food and human rights," he charged.
The 81-year-old Zimbabwean leader is subject to a European Union travel ban, and last month, U.S. Assistant Secretary of state Jendayi Frazer said Mugabe and senior government officials and their families would soon be barred from visiting the U.S.
But because of agreements between the U.N. and nations hosting its agencies, he is permitted to travel to U.N.-sponsored events, and has seized the international platform to lash out at the West.
When he addressed the U.N. General Assembly in New York last month, he accused the U.S. and Britain of hypocrisy over human rights.
On Monday, Mugabe went a lot further, calling Bush and Blair "international terrorists" and "the two unholy men of our millennium."
The two leaders, he said, had "formed an unholy alliance to attack an innocent country," a reference to Iraq under Saddam Hussein. They were now seeking to effect "regime change" in other developing countries, he added.
Flanked by two bodyguards, he slammed the West for policies towards North Korea, Iran and Venezuela, whose leader President Hugo Chavez was also at the gathering and had earlier used his speech to praise Mugabe and accuse "the North American empire" of threatening "all life on the planet."
"The voice of Mr. Bush and the voice of Mr. Blair can't decide who shall rule in Zimbabwe, who shall rule in Africa, who shall rule in Asia, who shall rule in Venezuela, who shall rule in Iran, who shall rule in Iraq," Mugabe said.
Earlier, Hall - the U.S. envoy -voiced objections about the invitation to Mugabe. In his speech, Mugabe called Hall an "agent of imperialism" and pointedly thanked the FAO's Senegalese secretary-general, Jacques Diouf, for "defying" the U.S. and inviting him.
Hall has been critical of Mugabe's controversial land-redistribution programs, which have seen successful white-owned commercial farms seized and given to blacks who often lacked the experience and resources to farm them.
During a visit to Zimbabwe last August, Hall said he found a country on the edge of a major food crisis.
"I remember when this country was a breadbasket of southern Africa," he said. "Today, the breadbasket is empty, thanks to counterproductive land reform policies and a drought that has made the situation even worse."
A former British colony, Zimbabwe won independence from Britain in 1980. Mugabe, who has ruled since then, stands accused of rights abuses, election rigging and economic mismanagement.
According to aid agencies, about five million of Zimbabwe's 12 million people may need food aid this year. Unemployment is around 70 percent, and inflation was hovering just below 360 percent last month.
Human rights groups have for several years recorded cases of authorities and ruling ZANU-PF party officials denying food aid to supporters of Zimbabwe's political opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change.
Most recently, NGO observers of a election last March reported that food was withheld from peasants unless they agreed to vote for ZANU-PF.
Since March 2002, the U.S. government has contributed more than $110 million worth of food assistance to Zimbabwe, through the World Food Program and other aid agencies.
Mugabe blames his country's woes on the West.
The seizure of white-owned farms, he said in his speech in Rome, had addressed "gross imbalances in land ownership" resulting from British colonialism.
Developing countries' agricultural sectors were also being crippled by agricultural subsidies in developed nations, he said.
Mugabe's remarks were well received by the country's state-run Harare Herald, which called it "a stirring speech which laid bare the open and underhand destabilization maneuvers of the United States and Britain."
Meanwhile a Zimbabwean news agency said Mugabe traveled to Rome at the weekend by "commandeering" a scheduled London-bound Air Zimbabwe flight and diverting it to the Italian capital.
On the ground in Rome, the report said, the plane and passengers were delayed for four hours, apparently because of an inability to pay to refuel.
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