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Zimbabwe cholera crisis spurs South African action

South Africa is sending more military doctors to its northern border to treat Zimbabwean cholera victims who have fled their collapsing homeland to get help, the government said Friday.

world Updated: Dec 05, 2008 19:04 IST

South Africa is sending more military doctors to its northern border to treat Zimbabwean cholera victims who have fled their collapsing homeland to get help, the government said Friday.

Cholera is easily prevented and cured, but Zimbabwe's medical and water-treatment systems have all but disappeared. The disaster, linked to Zimbabwe's political impasse, has created fears of a regional disease outbreak and led to renewed calls on longtime Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe to step down.

Zimbabwe state media announced Thursday that a national health emergency had been declared. The United Nations estimates the cholera epidemic has killed at least 575, of at least 12,700 infected since August. Cholera is an infectious intestinal disease that is contracted by consuming contaminated food or water. Its symptoms include severe diarrhea.

South African government spokesman Themba Maseko said Friday that in addition to deploying more military health workers at the border, South Africa, the main regional power, was sending clean water and other aid into Zimbabwe.

Maseko said the aid included 500,000 rand (about $50,000) worth of supplies donated by the government and another 700,000 rand (about $70,000) worth of tents, beds, blankets and other supplies donated by private South African companies.

South Africa also was dispatching a fact-finding team to Zimbabwe on Monday, Maseko said. Other humanitarian steps would be announced next week, he said, after the fact-finding team returns and makes its report to the president and Cabinet ministers. "We will continue to work with the World Health Organization's representatives and other donor organizations to provide assistance to medical facilities in Zimbabwe in order to manage and reduce the influx of Zimbabweans into South Africa and other neighboring countries," Maseko said.

In Mozambique, another Zimbabwe neighbor, health authorities are on maximum alert against the spread of cholera. Mozambican Health Minister Ivo Garrido said Friday that health teams were working in the provinces bordering Zimbabwe to lead anti-cholera operations. Zimbabwe's neighbors, led by South Africa, also have been mediating in the political impasse, trying to get the increasingly autocratic Mugabe to implement a power-sharing agreement with his rivals. The main mediator, former South African President Thabo Mbeki, has kept to a policy of quiet diplomacy, but others in the region and beyond are losing patience with Mugabe. In an interview Thursday on the Dutch current affairs show Nova, Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu said African nations should use military force to depose Mugabe if he refuses to relinquish power. Tutu, the retired Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, said another option would be to threaten Mugabe with prosecution at the Hague-based International Criminal Court, although he did not say on what charges.

Mugabe "is destroying a wonderful country," said Tutu, who has long been among Mugabe's sharpest critics. "A country that used to be a bread basket ... has now become a basket case itself needing help."

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking in the Danish capital Friday, said it was "well past time" for Mugabe to leave office.

Rice said the cholera outbreak should be a sign to the international community that it is time to stand up to Mugabe. The nations in southern Africa have the most to lose and need to take the lead, she said.

Mugabe has blamed his nation's plight on Western sanctions, and scoffed at criticism from Tutu and the U.S. in the past. The Netherlands and Britain are pushing for tougher EU sanctions against Mugabe's regime and last week Botswana's Foreign Minister Phandu Skelemani urged Zimbabwe's neighbors in southern Africa to impose sanctions on Mugabe.