Thousands flee as cholera death toll nears 800

According to the World Health Organisation, 774 people have died from cholera and a further 15,000 are infected in Zimbabwe, while thousands more have limped across the border into South Africa to escape the spreading disease.


Reuters - The death toll from Zimbabwe's cholera outbreak soared to nearly 800 on 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 over 15,000 were likely infected, casting doubt on official assertions it was under control. In Mozambique, officials said four people had died of cholera in a border area near Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe's 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 on Tuesday ordered police to find Jestina Mukoko, a former journalist and head of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, taken away at gunpoint in Harare on Dec. 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.

About 50 lawyers and rights activists marched in central Harare on Tuesday and handed a position to the speaker of parliament expressing concern at "the continued violation of human rights by the government of Zimbabwe, and its refusal to address the country's long standing human rights concerns".


Scores of opposition activists were abducted and killed in the run-up to a June presidential run-off election. MDC leader 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 Sept. 15 agreement to establish a unity government. That move has ground to a halt because of disagreement over control of key ministries.

MDC Secretary General Tendai Biti said the opposition would continue to negotiate with Mugabe's ZANU-PF despite attacks. He said about 30 MDC supporters and officials have been abducted in recent weeks.

"We cannot fold our hands and walk away from the agreement, given the collapse of the state and the suffering of the people. But it is extremely hard to be found on the negotiating table when our supporters are unaccounted for," Biti said.

"We will not walk away, we will look the dictator in the eye. He knows he's got a game on his hands."

ZANU-PF 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.

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.

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