Zimbabwe cholera toll soars as Mugabe under pressure

HARARE (Reuters) – The death toll from Zimbabwe's cholera outbreak soared to nearly 800 Wednesday and a court ordered police to find a missing rights activist, piling more pressure on President Robert Mugabe's government.

The spreading cholera, coupled with chronic food shortages, has highlighted the economic collapse of the southern African nation and prompted calls for Mugabe’s resignation from Western leaders and some within Africa.

The World Health Organisation said 774 Zimbabweans had died from cholera and more than 15,000 were likely infected with the disease, a sharp increase that cast doubts on official assertions that the epidemic was under control.

The government accuses foes abroad of using the epidemic to try to oust Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, and blames Western sanctions for ruining the once relatively prosperous southern African country.

Mugabe’s critics say his policies have wrecked Zimbabwe.

There is little hope of recovery while deadlock remains between Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai over implementing a power-sharing deal. Recent abductions of government critics have added to doubts over the agreement.

The Zimbabwe High Court Tuesday ordered police to find Jestina Mukoko, a former journalist and head of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, who was taken away at gunpoint in Harare on December 3.

"We got an order from the High Court instructing police to search for her," said Otto Saki of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), which filed the court petition.

Police have said Mukoko is in not in their custody.

ABDUCTIONS

Scores of MDC activists were abducted and killed in the run-up to a June presidential run-off election. MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai boycotted the vote after the attacks, allowing Mugabe to win the one-candidate poll.

International outrage over the election spurred a round of power-sharing talks that led to a September 15 agreement to establish a unity government. That move has ground to a halt because of disagreement over control of key ministries.

Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party and the MDC are due to meet again later this month.

Tsvangirai told CNN that the cholera crisis highlighted the need for Mugabe to be more accommodating in the talks.

A unity government is widely seen as Zimbabwe’s best hope of recovering. Prices double every 24 hours, the currency is worthless and much of the population has been pushed to the brink of famine.

"The situation in Zimbabwe is spiralling out of control," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

"The government has made clear it can’t end the humanitarian crisis and won’t end the vicious pursuit of its opponents. Regional and international leaders need urgently to respond."

U.S. President George W. Bush, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu are among those who have called for Mugabe to go in the past week.

The African Union, however, has resisted the calls for tougher action, including sending troops into Zimbabwe, and said that it backed continuing the power-sharing negotiations.