Associated Press

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) _ The United Nations world tourism body said Sunday it has chosen Zimbabwe to lead its Commission for Africa, the continent-wide group for tourism development for the next two years.

The U.N. World Tourism Organization said that conflict-troubled Mali also joins the African tourism commission.

Zimbabwe and Zambia are co-hosting the 155-nation tourism organization’s summit, held every two years, at the resort of Victoria Falls on their common border.

The six-day general assembly was formally opened by the two countries’ presidents, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Michael Sata of Zambia..

The United Nations said in a statement that July 31 elections in Zimbabwe, bitterly disputed over alleged rigging, “will be respected by the assembly.”

Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States have condemned Zimbabwe‘s July 31 elections for breaches of democratic rights, but they are not members of the U.N.’s tourism organization.

Western governments are generally skeptical over the value of the biennial meeting attended mostly by developing nations with a poor record in tourism, conservation and political stability.

Mugabe told the opening dinner celebrations and tribal dancing that the meeting endorsed Zimbabwe as “a safe and secure destination for world tourists.”

He said critical Western countries dominating other U.N. political and economic programs stuck to what he called their “demonic tendencies” toward him.

Zimbabwe sought friendly ties “with all countries, even those with which we may not agree on all matters,” he said.

The two host nations automatically take over the presidency of the U.N. tourism organization during the summit, which is expected to be attended by about 1,200 delegates from governments and tourism enterprises worldwide.

The last such gathering was held in South Korea in 2011. Cambodia and Colombia are on the short list to hold the next summit in 2015.

The U.N.’s decision to give Zimbabwe co-host status was criticized as a “disgraceful show of support and a terribly timed award of false legitimacy” for Mugabe’s authoritarian rule, by the independent U.N. Watch human rights group on Friday.

“Amid reports of election rigging and continuing human rights abuses, Zimbabwe is the last country that should be legitimized by a U.N. summit of any kind,” said Hillel Neuer, head of the Geneva-based group founded to monitor adherence by the world body to its universal charter on democracy and human rights.

He said Mugabe’s propagandists sought to gloss over the collapse of the economy, years of political turmoil and the persecution of opponents to “use the event to rebrand the postelection period.”

“The notion that the U.N. should spin this country as a lovely tourist destination is, frankly, sickening,” Neuer said.

The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force of independent environmentalists said Sunday that extra animals have been transported by state wildlife authorities to a poaching-prone nature preserve at Victoria Falls to “repopulate” the preserve before the meeting for the benefit of visiting delegates.

The trust said giraffes, zebra and hundreds of wildebeest, also known as the gnu, eland, Africa’s largest antelope, and the smaller deer-like impala antelope caught in southern Zimbabwe have been released in the 12-square-kilometer (5-square-mile) Zambezi National Park overlooking the Zambezi River and the Victoria Falls, the largest single curtain of falling water on earth at a mile (1.6 kilometers) wide ranked as one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

Zimbabwe always claims to have an abundance of animals, so why is it necessary to move these animals to where the delegates of UNWTO will be able to see them?” said Johnny Rodrigues, head of the trust.

Zimbabwe‘s often violent seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms since 2000 disrupted the agriculture-based economy that in turn led to world record inflation, a sharp decline in tourism and the collapse of power and water utilities and health and education services.

Unemployment spiraled, spurring wildlife poaching. Deforestation increased as trees were felled for domestic fuel during regular power outages and logging of protected hardwood trees, even in nature preserves, saw the timber illegally exported and sold to Asian furniture makers.

The state Forestry Commission has estimated 300,000 hectares (720,000 acres) of woodland were lost last year.

The U.N. World Tourism Organization, meanwhile, advised participants at Victoria Falls that no conference documentation will be distributed on paper to save trees “in compliance with the United Nations system’s environmental protection