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By Nelson Banya
HARARE (Reuters) - The European Union is providing seed and fertiliser worth 15.4 million euros (14.15 million pounds) to small-scale Zimbabwean farmers to boost grain production, an EU diplomat said on Thursday.
The EU, which maintains sanctions against Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and his inner circle over charges of human rights abuses and electoral fraud, remains one of the country's largest donors, giving more than 510 million euros since 2002.
Mugabe and long-term rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai formed a power-sharing government in February to try to end a political and economic crisis, largely blamed on Mugabe's drive to seize land from whites to resettle landless blacks.
Once a breadbasket of the region, Zimbabwe's farming sector has collapsed.
The head of the European Commission in Zimbabwe, Xavier Marchal, told a meeting of agricultural experts and donors assessing the preparations for the farming season that the EU facility was aimed at improving household food security.
"The EC, on behalf of the EU, has signed an agreement with FAO (the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation), which will provide 15.4 million euros to support self-reliance at smallholder farmer level in Zimbabwe," Marchal said.
"This programme is part of a wider EC policy aiming at moving this country from food aid to food security."
When food shortages were at their peak in 2008, aid organisations were feeding about 7 million Zimbabweans, more than half the population.
The EU facility is part of a $74 million fund created by donors, including the World Bank and Britain's Department for International Development, to support up to 700,000 small-scale farmers.
The donors' project is expected to produce about 450,000 tonnes of the staple maize grain and meet a quarter of Zimbabwe's annual requirements.
The government has forecast total maize output at up to 2.5 million tonnes, more than last year's production, but farmers' unions doubt the projection, citing input shortages and poor preparations.
Marchal said the EU would increase direct assistance to Zimbabwe once talks launched by Tsvangirai in Brussels in June were successfully concluded.
"But more importantly, government has to take its responsibilities. The decline in agricultural production is indeed related to issues relating to the way the land and agrarian reform programme has been conducted," he said.