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An unwelcome guest at food summit

"It is obscene," a British official said of Mugabe's appearance at a global gathering in Rome.

ROME - So what's wrong with a man accused of starving his people attending a global summit on world hunger?

Plenty, say several leaders who find themselves joining Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe here for a three-day crisis meeting on the soaring prices of food.

"It is obscene," said Douglas Alexander, Britain's international-development secretary and the head of its delegation.

Alexander told BBC radio yesterday that he would refuse to acknowledge Mugabe, saying the president's "profound misrule" condemned millions of Zimbabweans to dependence on food aid for survival.

Despite a European Union travel ban imposed on Mugabe more than five years ago, he flew into Rome on Sunday and under police escort was whisked to a hotel.

Officials of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, which is sponsoring the conference, said they could not block Mugabe's attendance because EU restrictions do not extend to a U.N. venue.

About 40 heads of state or government are expected for the FAO summit, which starts today and is aimed at confronting the spread of world hunger amid sharp increases in food costs. Officials blame a daunting convergence of factors, from record fuel prices to bad harvests exacerbated by climate change, for making food unavailable or unaffordable to a globe-spanning community of already poor people.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon plans to urge world leaders to help bring down soaring food prices by immediately suspending or eliminating many price controls and other agricultural trade restrictions. He will press nations to ease a wide variety of farming taxes, export bans and import tariffs to help millions of the world's poor cope with the highest food prices in 30 years, U.N. officials said.

Ban, who also seeks to increase world food production, intends to request that the United States and other nations phase out subsidies for food-based biofuels, including ethanol, that have been used to encourage farmers to grow crops for energy use rather than human consumption.

Critics regard Mugabe's presence as especially provocative because of what they see as his role in plunging his nation into economic chaos. In what he portrayed as a reform program, Mugabe seized thousands of white-owned farms that he said would go to landless black people but ended up, critics charge, in the hands of his cronies who allowed them to waste away.