Annan and Carter will defy Robert Mugabe ban to visit Zimbabwe

Harare/Johannesburg – Former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan said Thursday that he and former United States president Jimmy Carter planned to forge ahead with a visit to Zimbabwe at the weekend, despite their visit being rebuffed by President Robert Mugabe's regime.

Annan, Carter and Mozambican social activist Graca Machel, members of The Elders group of leading activists and ex-world leaders, are planning to spend Saturday and Sunday in Zimbabwe "to meet those working on the ground to better assess the extent of the crisis and how assistance can be improved," Annan said.

"My colleagues and I look forward to our visit," the former UN chief said in a statement, despite a report in the state-controlled Herald newspaper pouring cold water on the visit and accusing the three of trying to bolster the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

"The visit has been deemed a partisan mission by a group of people with partisan interests," the Herald said, quoting an unnamed government source. The government had advised The Elders that it was "not in a position to handle the visit at this time of the year."

"As we said earlier, we have no intention of becoming involved in the ongoing political negotiations in Zimbabwe," Annan said.

"We have sought meetings with political leaders in Zimbabwe and would be pleased to hear their views," he added.

A spokesperson for The Elders said the group had written to Mugabe to seek a meeting with him in Harare but had not yet received a formal reply.

The Elders, a grouping of former leaders and leading thinkers was launched by anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela on his 89th birthday in 2007. The group also includes South African Nobel peace prize winner and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who has been outspoken against the 84-year-old Mugabe, referring to him as "a caricature of an African dictator."

The visit coincides with the breakdown in power-sharing talks between Mugabe and the MDC and a deepening humanitarian crisis, characterized by widespread hunger and a raging cholera outbreak.

The outbreak, which doctors estimate has killed hundreds in Zimbabwe, has also hit the South African border town of Musina. Three people have died of cholera over the past week in the town, through which hundreds of Zimbabweans, mostly illegal immigrants and cross-border traders, pass each day.

Another 18 people are being treated in hospital for the disease, according to the provincial health department.

The South African government on Thursday expressed impatience with Zimbabwe’s leaders’ failure to tackle the crisis.

"The government is disappointed to note that political interests have taken priority at the expense of the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans," government spokesman Themba Maseko said.

The Herald’s source dismissed the weekend visit by The Elders visit as a "planned rescue package" for Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC.

The MDC is refusing Mugabe’s terms for joining a unity government, in which Mugabe remains president and Tsvangirai becomes prime minister.

The MDC, which won the last parliamentary elections, accuses Mugabe of trying to force it into the role of junior partner. Zimbabwe’s neighbours in the Southern African Development Community have sided with Mugabe in the dispute.

The Herald said the parties were due to meet next week under the mediation of former South African president Thabo Mbeki to discuss a draft constitutional amendment that will set out Tsvangirai’s powers as prime minister.

Meanwhile, the MDC has sounded the alarm over a new state crackdown on its supporters. The party says 12 of its members, who were arrested nearly three weeks ago in Mashonaland West province, are still being held incommunicado by police.

From the state’s side, assistant police commissioner Wayne Bvudzijena told the Herald a bomb went off at the criminal investigations department in Harare on Monday night, the second such incident at a police station in three months.

Bomb disposal experts discovered two other bombs before they were able to detonate, Bvudzijena said, without advancing any further details.