HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — The government says it has spent $260 million to send troops fighting in the distant Congo civil war even as Zimbabweans face acute fuel and hard currency shortages in the nation's worst economic crisis since independence.
President Robert Mugabe deployed 11,000 troops to back Congolese forces against anti-government rebels in August 1998. Finance Minister Simba Makoni said that the deployment has since cost about $260 million, the official Zimbabwe news agency reported.
Makoni's disclosure in the Harare parliament late Wednesday is likely to shake the nation. Worsening economic hardships have been blamed mainly on mismanagement and corruption.
Makoni is a technocrat appointed to head the Finance Ministry after Mugabe's ruling party won a narrow majority in parliamentary elections in June. He had promised to come clean on the cost of the Congo deployment.
The International Monetary Fund froze support to Zimbabwe last year, citing government attempts to cover up the full extent of its military spending as one of its reasons.
The government has maintained that embattled Congolese President Laurent Kabila was picking up the tab, but recently acknowledged he failed to honor most of his promises to repay Zimbabwe.
Makoni said Kabila was still ``committed'' to reimbursing Zimbabwe for its soldiers' combat allowances, armor-backed transport and the operations of chartered supply aircraft, helicopters and fighter jets.
Mugabe has repeatedly argued he sent his forces to Congo to restore regional stability, but a cease-fire he signed with other warring sides last year has all but collapsed.
Zimbabwe is Kabila's main military ally. Angola and Namibia also deployed troops to fight rebel factions backed by Rwanda and Uganda.
Mugabe was on his way to the United States on Wednesday for a U.N.-sponsored summit of world leaders and there was no immediate response from his office to Makoni's disclosure.
This year, inflation has soared to a record 70 percent and unemployment exceeded 50 percent. Education, social and health services have declined sharply, with state hospitals and clinics reporting acute shortages of basic drugs and equipment.
Shortages of fuel and electric power imported from neighboring countries began last year after the government ran out of hard currency to pay outstanding debts.
Once a showcase of the agriculture-based economy, the annual six-day Zimbabwe Agricultural Show, which ends in Harare on Saturday, has starkly mirrored the nation's crumbling economy and political woes.
Dozens of exhibition stalls remained empty for the first time and the number of pedigree cattle on show was down by half.
``It's very sad. No one is coming. People are suffering, people are fighting to keep their jobs, to feed their families,'' said Simon Makoni, selling plastic sun visors for a cancer charity.
Farming production has been hard hit by government plans to confiscate 3,000 white-owned farms without paying compensation and by violent occupations since February of 1,600 properties by mobs of squatters led by veterans of the bush war that ended white rule in 1980.
Mugabe has defended the occupations as a justified protest against unfair land ownership by whites and has stopped police removing illegal occupiers who have disrupted production.