ROME (AFP) — The presence of Zimbabwean and Iranian presidents Robert Mugabe and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a UN food summit here sparked international condemnation and protests in Italy on Monday.
Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith called Mugabe's presence in Rome "obscene". Britain also criticised Mugabe's rare foray out of Zimbabwe where he is fighting for his political future in an election runoff.
"This is the person who has presided over the starvation of his people. This is the person who has used food aid in a politically motivated way," Smith said.
"So Robert Mugabe turning up to a conference dealing with food security or food issues is, in my view, frankly obscene," added the Australian minister, who is also to attend the Food and Agriculture Organization summit.
In London, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's spokesman said: "We think it's particularly unfortunate that (Mugabe) has decided to attend this meeting given what he has done in relation to contributing to difficulties on food supply in Zimbabwe."
There were also protests in Italy by activists, leftist politicians and Jewish groups against Mugabe and Ahmadinejad.
"It is in no way legitimate for the people of Zimbabwe to be represented by a head of state who has been disowned by the international community and who is unwanted by his own people," Sergio Marelli, Italian host of a forum on food sovereignty coinciding with the summit, told AFP.
Italy's libertarian Radical Party plans a sit-in against both leaders on Tuesday, first day of the three-day summit.
"We are against all dictatorships," Radical Party spokeswoman Anita Friedman told AFP.
Zimbabwe faces acute food shortages after land reforms and the collapse of the farming sector.
The 84-year-old president is subject to a travel ban to the European Union because of sanctions imposed after he allegedly rigged his re-election in 2002, but is able to attend UN forums.
Participants at Tuesday's sit-in outside Rome's city hall under the slogan "We Hunger for Freedom" will include several Jewish groups as well as peace and political refugee groups.
Ahmadinejad's presence at the summit "addressing the tragedy of hunger in the world symbolises the devastating contradiction between the violence of totalitarian governments and their demogogic statements," demonstration organisers said in a statement.
"At a time when the world prepares to talk about food security and resources, we must be aware that democracy (civil, social, political and economic) is the solution to the tragedy of hunger," it said.
"For nearly 30 years, the rulers in Tehran have negated the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, women, gays, student associations and anyone who does not agree with the regime's policies," the statement said.
On learning of the surprise arrival of Mugabe late Sunday, the organisers decided to expand their protest to the Zimbabwean leader.
"The welcome we announced for Ahmadinejad will also be reserved for Mugabe," Marco Perduca, a lawmaker for the centre-left Democratic Party said in the statement. "Just a few hours ago, a Zimbabwe opposition leader, Arthur Mutambara, was arrested."
About 50 heads of state and government are expected in Rome for the summit on food security at a time of soaring world prices.
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