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Mozambican government reverses bread price increases following deadly riots

MAPUTO, Mozambique (AP) — Mozambique's government is reversing bread and water price increases that had touched off deadly riots, the planning minister said Tuesday.

Protests last week in the capital, Maputo, over hikes in the costs of bread, water and electricity turned violent, with demonstrators clashing with police. The health department put the death toll at 13.

Planning Minister Aiuba Cuereneia told reporters after a Cabinet meeting that the 20 percent increase in the government-set price of bread — which had followed a year of steady increases on the staple in this impoverished country — that went into effect Monday would be reversed. A loaf will cost five meticais, or about 14 cents. The reverses are immediate, he said.

He said an increase in the price of water also would be reversed, but that higher electricity tariffs were being maintained.

The government also was reducing the cost of a 25-kilogram (11-pound) bag of rice by 7.8 percent, to 700 meticais (about $19).

"These are measures we are taking to reduce the cost of living in Mozambique," the minister said. He referred to the protests only to condemn the violence.

The government was cutting back elsewhere to compensate. Cuereneia said the government was suspending stipends for those chairing the boards of public companies and increasing some customs duties.

The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization said in a statement Tuesday its experts did not believe the world was headed toward a food crisis like the one in 2008, when high prices sparked political instability in Mozambique, Haiti and elsewhere. FAO said this year's cereal harvest worldwide was the third highest on record and food stocks are high. Other conditions, such as soaring fuel prices, that were blamed for the 2007-2008 food crisis aren't present now, officials say.

The FAO nonetheless cautioned that food commodities markets will remain more volatile in coming years. It suggested improving the markets' regulation and establishing an "appropriate level" of emergency food stocks, while assuring fluid global trade in food.

The agency is holding a special session on Sept. 24 to better gauge the food supply situation in member nations, but FAO stressed that the gathering is "not an emergency meeting."

This year, a drought in Russia has prompted the country to restrict wheat exports, helping drive up global food costs.

Mozambique's government has said that keeping food prices low is difficult because so much of the country's food has to be imported. The southeastern African nation grows only 30 percent of the wheat it needs.

Energy Minister Salvador Namburete has said Monday that the recent increase in the price of electricity was necessary to cover the cost of electrifying rural areas and constructing a new power line in the country's northwest.

No one has come forward as the organizer of the protests. Word was spread by cell phone text messages, and on Monday Mozambicans found they were unable to send texts. It was unclear whether the text failure was part of a government crackdown.

The worst of the rioting was Wednesday and Thursday. Though it died down after that, the government had struggled to stamp out unrest and protests had flared outside Maputo.

Authorities have said they were trying to trace who sent the first unsigned cell phone messages calling for protests in the southern African nation. Over the weekend, text messages calling for calm and portraying protests as unpatriotic began to appear — they, too, were unsigned.