By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 12, 2008
JOHANNESBURG, Dec. 11 -- President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe said Thursday that a cholera epidemic in the southern African nation had been "arrested," even as the United Nations announced that deaths from the illness had risen to 783.
Mugabe credited the World Health Organization for helping contain the outbreak in Zimbabwe, which last week declared a national health emergency.
"Now there is no cholera, there is no cause for war," he said in a speech at a funeral for a ruling party official, news services reported. "We need doctors, not soldiers."
Mugabe, who blames Western sanctions for the country's economic collapse, has accused the West of using the cholera outbreak to plot an invasion.
His assessment of the epidemic was disputed by health-care organizations, which have flooded the economically devastated country in recent weeks with supplies and personnel. On Wednesday, the United Nations called for an additional $6 million to tackle cholera, which it said threatens "the well-being of thousands of people."
"The situation is getting better," said Thomas Merkelbach, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Zimbabwe. But he added, "There are still cases coming in."
Nelson Chamisa, a spokesman for the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change, told Bloomberg News that Mugabe's claim was "clearly madness."
Mugabe, Zimbabwe's leader for 28 years, has faced increasing international pressure in recent days to step down as the cholera crisis has grown. Kenya's prime minister, Raila Odinga, and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu have called on African nations to use force to depose Mugabe. This week, President Bush, echoing calls from France and Britain, said it was "time for Robert Mugabe to go."
The outbreak, which health officials attribute to a collapsed sanitation system and a lack of clean water, has sickened more than 16,400 people, according to U.N. figures released Thursday. Cholera is spread through contaminated water and food.
On Wednesday, South Africa declared a zone along its border with Zimbabwe a disaster area after an influx of hundreds of Zimbabweans seeking treatment for cholera.
Mugabe signed a power-sharing deal in September with the leader of the main opposition party, Morgan Tsvangirai, and a splinter opposition group. The deal was hailed as a breakthrough for the troubled nation, but it has stalled as the parties haggle over cabinet seats.
Conditions in Zimbabwe, meanwhile, have worsened. Hospitals and schools have closed. Hunger is widespread, according to aid groups. Inflation, officially at 231 million percent, is so high that Zimbabwe's Reserve Bank last week began issuing 100 million Zimbabwean dollar notes.
Arrests and abductions of dissenters are also on the rise, human rights organizations say. Jestina Mukoko, the leader of a prominent group that tracks human rights violations, was seized from her home last week by several armed men and has not been seen since, activists say. Two other members of Mukoko's group, the Zimbabwe Peace Project, have since disappeared.
"There's a dark cloud hanging," Mukoko said in an interview last month. "And we are not really sure what that dark cloud is going to bring for us."