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Zimbabwe may let whites farm again

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EAST LONDON, South Africa (Reuters) -- Zimbabwe, facing food shortages blamed partly on its large-scale seizures of white-owned farms, is considering allowing some interested whites to return to farming, a minister said.

President Robert Mugabe's government has received more than 200 applications from whites to take up farming again, land minister Flora Buka said on Saturday during an agriculture conference in South Africa.

"As regards white commercial farmers, there are some who have indicated that they would want to continue farming," Buka told Reuters.

"Their applications are being considered. If they are willing to stay, that is also going to be considered. Also, the amount of land they have is also going to be considered."

Asked if the government was still confiscating land from whites to redistribute to blacks, Buka said: "Yes, we are still resettling our people on the land that is state land."

Many of Zimbabwe's white farmers have gone overseas or to other African countries after often violent land grabs backed by Mugabe, who initiated the redistribution program six years ago.

Industry analysts say only about 600 of Zimbabwe's 4,500 white farmers have kept their land.

Zimbabwe was once the breadbasket of the region and a net exporter of maize and other essential cereals to its neighbors.

But food agencies say the departure of experienced white commercial farmers has cut into agricultural output and exposed Zimbabweans to persistent food shortages. Meanwhile, a severe economic crisis has led to a shortage of foreign currency and surging inflation of more than 1,000 percent annually.

The U.N. World Food Program said last week 1.4 million Zimbabweans will need food aid in the next six months despite improved agricultural output last season.

Mugabe's government has forecast production of 1.8 million tonnes of the staple maize, but food agencies, while acknowledging output has improved, predict a lower crop.

The WFP said 10 percent of the country's estimated 12 million people would need aid before next April.

Mugabe's government has defended its land program as necessary to reverse injustices of British colonial rule.

As in other African countries, many blacks in Zimbabwe were forcibly removed from their land under colonialism, leaving white minorities holding most of the arable land.

Copyright 2006 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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Many of the new landowners have struggled as farmers.

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