AU rejects tougher Robert Mugabe action

HARARE, (Reuters) – The African Union rejected tougher steps against Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe on Tuesday after demands from Western leaders and some African statesmen that he quit over the growing humanitarian crisis.

The death toll neared 600 from a cholera epidemic which Mugabe’s government accuses Western powers of exploiting to try to force his departure. The World Health Organisation said cholera could affect as many as 60,000 in a worst case scenario.

The African Union made clear it did not back calls for much tougher action.

"Only dialogue between the Zimbabwean parties, supported by the AU and other regional actors, can restore peace and stability to that country," said Salva Rweyemamu, spokesman for AU chairman and Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete.

Rweyemamu said sending peacekeeping troops or removing Mugabe by force, as proposed by prominent figures including Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Nobel peace laureate and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, were not options.

"We have a serious humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe. We have cholera. Do they think that we can eradicate cholera with guns?".

Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai reached a power-sharing deal brokered by regional mediator Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s former president, in September. But they are deadlocked over how to implement it.

The spreading cholera, food shortages and economic collapse in the once relatively prosperous southern African country have prompted new demands from Western countries for Mugabe to quit.

WEST ACCUSED

Mugabe’s spokesman George Charamba said the West was using the cholera outbreak to try to bring down the veteran leader. "The British and the Americans are dead set on bringing Zimbabwe back to the U.N. Security Council, they are also dead set on ensuring that there is an invasion of Zimbabwe but without themselves carrying it out," state-owned newspaper The Herald quoted Charamba as saying.

In a sign that Mugabe’s traditional ally China may be distancing itself, Beijing stressed the call for the formation of a unity government between Mugabe and the opposition.

"We sincerely hope that all concerned parties in Zimbabwe will truly focus on the interests of the country and its people and soon form a government of national unity," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in Beijing.

China offered aid, saying it was concerned about the deteriorating political and economic situation.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the number of cholera cases stood at 13,960 with 589 deaths. The World Health Organisation (WHO) said up to 60,000 could catch cholera if the epidemic gets out of control.

The disease is preventable and treatable under normal circumstances, but Zimbabwe’s health sector is near collapse.

"It is total chaos, three hospitals in Harare are closed due to a lack of personnel," said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The WHO said it was considering financial incentives for unpaid health workers in Zimbabwe to return to their jobs.

Mugabe blames Western sanctions for Zimbabwe’s hardship, while his critics accuse him of increasingly authoritarian rule.

Basic foodstuffs are running out, prices of goods are doubling every 24 hours, and the 100 million Zimbabwean dollar a week limit for bank withdrawals buys only three loaves of bread in the once relatively prosperous country.

South Africa, receiving hundreds of desperate Zimbabweans seeking treatment for cholera, is due to give details of an aid package to Zimbabwe later this week. At least eight people have died from cholera in the Limpopo province bordering Zimbabwe.

South African Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said on Tuesday the country will not increase border controls despite concern Zimbabwe’s crisis could lead to more illegal immigrants