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WASHINGTON (AP) _ The International Monetary Fund will lend Malawi $23 million to help the African nation import food in anticipation of shortages later this year.

``Malawi is facing a serious food shortages,'' IMF Managing Director Horst Koehler said in a statement Tuesday. ``Our emergency assistance is a step toward helping the nation deal with its current food needs.''

The United Nations estimates that 12.8 million people in Malawi and five other southern African countries _ Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland _ urgently need help to avoid mass starvation caused by erratic weather and made worse by government mismanagement.

Malawi's problems have been compounded by the disappearance of emergency grain stocks, which some critics have blamed on the IMF.

IMF officials say that at no time did they advise the government to eliminate the stocks. Because the stocks are expensive to maintain, the IMF simply agreed with recommendations by a Malawi government commission to reduce the grain reserve to buffer levels, the fund has said.

Malawi's anti-corruption agency has accused senior government officials of selling the grain and says much of the money involved has vanished.