President Robert Mugabe's government has banned all aid agencies and charities from carrying out field operations in the country "with immediate effect," it was confirmed on Thursday night.
Aid agency officials said the ban would wreak "untold harm" on the country, as thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play a critical role in providing food, shelter, health care and education for millions of people in the midst of the country's economic collapse.
The ban was contained in a letter dated on Thursday and signed by social welfare minister Nicholas Goche, who had it delivered to the locally-based National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations, said Noel Kututwa, chairman of the Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network, a respected electoral reform body.
"I have seen the letter, it simply says that NGOs have not been complying in terms of conditions of the act (governing their activities) and the minister has decided that all field operations must cease forthwith," he said.
The move, which comes after the close of a United Nations summit on hunger in Rome that President Robert Mugabe was attending, was expected to worsen the plight of the around 4 million Zimbabweans estimated to be in need of food aid.
Already, the distribution of aid in rural areas has already been severely hampered by a campaign of violence in the wake of March elections targeting mainly opposition supporters.
The ban comes a day after international aid agency Care International, one of the country's biggest providers of famine relief, announced it had been ordered to halt operations, for allegedly using food to persuade people to vote for Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, in a run off for presidential elections in three weeks.
CARE denied the accusation "categorically”.
Save the Children also said it had been ordered to partially suspend its operations.
"It's very vague and there are serious legal problems with the letter," said ZESN's Kututwa.
ZESN has fallen foul of the state after producing an estimate after the March 29 elections showing opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai taking more votes than Mugabe.
The estimate was later borne out in the official count.
"One can refuse to comply because it's not legal. But of course there will be reprisals if one takes that position. One can legally ignore it, but the problem is not about the law, it's about what the authorities want. It has been sent around the country to ZANU(PF)
(Mugabe's party) structures, which will make it very difficult for people to operate.
"That's the problem we face now," he said.