U.N. wants better relationships with Zimbabwe

The United Nations' emergency relief coordinator wrapped up a three-day visit to Zimbabwe on Wednesday, saying he hoped for a better relationship with the government. President Robert Mugabe's government has rejected U.N. assessments that his country faces a humanitarian crisis and strong U.N. criticism of its Operation Murambatsvina, Clean Out Trash, a so-called urban renewal campaign earlier this year that left thousands homeless.

Jan Egeland said he hoped his visit would pave the way for a better working relationship with the government "after many problems in the past."

"We spent too much time on meetings and not enough on providing shelter," he told reporters after meeting with Mugabe on Tuesday. Relations eased last week after the government agreed to allow the World Food Program to help feed at least 3 million people after earlier denying critical shortages.

Zimbabwe will also allow the United Nations to help build new homes for those displaced by Operation Murambatsvina after first denying there was a housing crisis, though it has rejected an offer of tents as an interim measure.

A United Nations report concluded some 700,000 people lost their homes or livelihoods in the campaign and called for those responsible to be punished for causing immense and unnecessary suffering. The campaign was defended by the government as an urban renewal drive. Opposition leaders claim the demolitions were aimed at breaking up their strongholds among the urban poor.

U.N. officials have reserved judgment on the motive. "The point here is it could have been avoided. It didn't have to reach these proportions," Egeland said. Egeland said "thousands and thousands" of people remain without adequate shelter because of Operation Murambatsvina. Zimbabwe is also plagued by acute food shortages and a devastating AIDS epidemic that is killing some 3,000 people a week, Egeland said.

He said the United Nations has appealed for US$276 million Ђ230 million) in funding for Zimbabwe. Most is for food, but funds are also needed for shelter, health, water and sanitation services, he said.

Egeland left Wednesday morning for neighboring South Africa where he was scheduled to meet with government and humanitarian officials before returning to New York, U.N. officials said. Among the topics for discussion are closer collaboration on humanitarian assistance, including a proposed US$500 million (Ђ414 million) global Central Emergency Response.

During his Zimbabwe visit, Egeland toured demolition sites, housing projects and a center for AIDS orphans. He also met with government officials, church leaders, aid workers and displaced people, reports the AP. I.L.

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