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Mozambican food riots are reminder of vulnerability of world's poorest nations

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — A few pennies' increase in the price of a loaf of bread can mean the difference between getting by and going hungry — and erupting in anger — in the world's poorest countries.

A spike in food prices has triggered deadly riots in Mozambique this week, and experts worry other countries that saw such unrest during the last global food crisis in 2008 could be hit again. Over the last two months alone, food prices worldwide have risen 5 percent.

"I think everyone is wondering if we are going to have a repeat of 2008 when ... there were food riots around the world," said Johanna Nesseth Tuttle, director of the Global Food Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Countries from Asia, to the Middle East to Europe are feeling the strain.

— In Egypt, where half the population depends on subsidized bread, recent protests over rising food prices left at least one person dead. The crisis could impact upcoming parliamentary elections because the regime's increasingly tenuous legitimacy rests on its ability to provide the masses with cheap bread.

— In Pakistan, the prices of many food items have risen by 15 percent or more following devastating floods that destroyed a fifth of the country's crops and agricultural infrastructure. Flooding has also hit distribution networks, leading to shortages.

— In China, officials are threatening to punish price gougers, while in Serbia, a 30 percent hike in the price of cooking oil reported for next week has led to warnings of demonstrations by trade unions.

In downtown Dakar, Senegal, 29-year-old security guard Djiba Sidime recalled going to the market to buy a bag of rice and finding it had spiked from around $30 to $38.

The increase is no small matter in a country where most people get by on around $4 a day. To make up the difference, Sidime said he won't be able to buy new clothes to mark the end of Ramadan later this month.

"Of course, I'm frustrated," he said.

International food prices have risen to their highest levels in two years, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said Wednesday, reporting a 5 percent increase between July and August alone. The Rome-based agency also forecast this year's wheat crop at 648 million tons, down 5 percent from 2009, reflecting a cut in drought-hit Russia's harvest.

However, there are few parallels between today and the 2008 food crisis, which was blamed on high oil prices and growing demand for biofuels that pushed world food stocks to their lowest levels since 1982, according to Maximo Torero, an expert on markets and trade with the International Food Policy Research Institute.

The United States, Canada and other countries have had good harvests and supplies are sufficient, Torero said, adding that what must be avoided are panicky policy decisions, like banning exports.

In Mozambique's case, he said, higher prices set by the government were based on monetary exchange issues, not concerns about world supplies.

Mozambicans saw the price of a loaf of bread rise 25 percent in the past year — from about four to five U.S. cents, and fuel and water costs also have risen.

The increases have had a dramatic impact in a nation where more than half the population lives in poverty. Mozambique ranks 175th of 179 countries on the U.N. Human Development Index, a measure that takes into account health and education levels as well as income.

Per capita income in the southeastern African country is just $802, compared to $9,757 in South Africa, where many Mozambicans have fled in search of work.

Still, the country has recovered from a devastating civil war that broke out after independence from Portugal in 1975 and lasted for 17 years. From 1994 to 2006, it saw annual GDP growth of about 8 percent. Mozambique is relatively stable and a popular tourist destination, particularly for visitors from South Africa.

The trouble this week started Wednesday in the capital, Maputo. Protesters, most of them young men, started marching peacefully but then began throwing stones, burning tires and looting shops.

Police opened fire, and tourists and business people were trapped in their hotels or at the airport as mobs cut off the airport road. At least seven people were killed and scores injured.

The unrest continued Thursday. Cell phone messages called for continued protests and a march on parliament.

The government has urged calm, saying it can do little about the high prices, which were sparked by a drop in the value of the import-dependent nation's currency. It pointed out that Mozambique grows only 30 percent of the wheat it needs.

"The importation of wheat and other commodities incur high costs in international markets," government spokesman Antonio Nkutumula said.

Augusto Gonas, a protester, said that instead of calls for calm, the government should address the needs of its people.

"What we need to hear is the order to lower prices," Gonas said.

Marc Van Ameringen, executive director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, said the price spike is hitting a country already seriously affected by malnutrition: 44 percent of Mozambican children suffer from stunted growth and nearly 20 percent of those under 5 are underweight.

Young children and pregnant women are at particular risk, because poor nutrition in the early years can permanently affect the development of the brain and body, Van Ameringen said.

He noted that more than 1 billion people around the world are hungry and malnourished, and another 1 billion aren't getting the proper nutrition from the food they do manage to obtain.

"These crises should remind the world that we already have a crisis, even before this food price spike," Van Ameringen said.

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Associated Press writers Emanuel Camillo in Maputo, Mozambique; Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia; Artis Henderson reported in Dakar, Senegal; Zarar Khan in Islamabad; Jason Straziuso in Nairobi, Kenya; and Gillian Wong in Beijing contributed to this report.