ROME (AFP) — Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe arrived Sunday night in Rome where he will take part in a summit of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), ANSA news agency reported.
Mugabe, who is usually subject to a travel ban to the European Union but is able to attend UN forums, touched down at around 2000 GMT at Rome-Fiumicino airport.
The trip marks the first time that Mugabe has left the country since he lost the first round of a presidential election on March 29 to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. The pair are to contest a run-off at the end of the month.
Zimbabwe state television said he was accompanied by his wife Grace and Agriculture Minister Rugare Gumbo.
He is expected to stay in the Italian capital until Friday.
The 84-year-old leader caused outrage in October 2005 when he used a speech at the FAO to tell donor nations not to "foist" food on Zimbabwe and compared the then British premier Tony Blair to Italy's wartime dictator, Benito Mussolini.
Zimbabwe is currently facing acute food shortages and the FAO warned in April that near drought in parts of the country could badly damage the maize harvest and render a precarious staple food problem critical within months.
The country was once the region's bread basket but the farming sector has collapsed since Mugabe embarked on a controversial land reform programme at the turn of the decade which saw thousands of white-owned farms expropriated.
While the programme was meant to benefit to landless blacks, Mugabe's critics charge that some of the best farmland ended up in the hands of his cronies while agricultural production plunged into decline.
Government-imposed price controls have also led to widespread shortages in shops with many food producers unable to cover their costs in a country where the official inflation rate stands at 165,000 percent but is understood to be many times higher.
While it used to be a net exporter, Zimbabwe is now having to import hundreds of thousands of tonnes of the staple maize from countries such as Malawi and Zambia which were once seen as poor relations.
Mugabe, who has ruled the former British colony uninterrupted since independence in 1980, has in turn blamed the country's economic woes on a limited package of sanctions imposed by the EU and United States after he allegedly rigged his re-election in 2002.
The sanctions include the travel ban and a freeze on Western bank accounts held by Mugabe and his inner circle.
Mugabe's last visit to Europe came in December last year when he was controversially invited to attend an EU-Africa summit hosted by Portugal.
Other southern African leaders had threatened to boycott the get-together in Lisbon if he was blacklisted from the event. As a consequence Britain refused to send any representative.
Having been accused of sullying Africa's reputation by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mugabe hit back by saying he refused to be lectured on democracy by the leader of Europe given the continent's history of colonialism.
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