HARARE, Zimbabwe – President Robert Mugabe's regime has renewed assaults on dissidents, a human rights group said Tuesday, even as he faced more international pressure to step down amid a cholera outbreak that has killed nearly 600 people.
The World Health Organization, meanwhile, said it was planning its response on the assumption that as many as 60,000 people could be infected if the situation worsens.
A stalled power-sharing deal has left Zimbabwe's leaders paralyzed — and its people increasingly impatient. Last week saw demonstrations against the collapse of the health system while soldiers who were unable to draw their wages because of cash shortages went on the rampage.
Brian Raftopoulos, organizer of the Solidarity Peace Trust, said a number of activists have been abducted and protests violently quashed by riot police.
"As long as the (political) stalemate continues we will see an increasing crackdown," Raftopoulos told reporters Tuesday in South Africa. "The Mugabe regime is presiding over the death of the nation of Zimbabwe."
Mugabe's neighbors and others have recently renewed calls on him to surrender power, not just share it with his opposition as envisioned in a unity government deal that has been stalled since September.
Mugabe's aides responded to the calls, which are similar to denunciations he has resisted for years, by accusing the West of trying to use the cholera crisis as an excuse to topple the government.
At a news conference Tuesday, Zimbabwe Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu claimed "the cholera issue has been used to drive a wedge among us," that the deaths were due to Western sanctions and that the disease was "under control."
He dismissed world leaders such as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown who have called for Mugabe to step down, saying: "I don't want to hear their dirty mouths."
On Tuesday, the United Nations increased the toll from cholera to 589 dead out of 13,960 cases.
Zimbabwe was cooperating with international aid agencies fighting the cholera epidemic, and last week declared a health emergency because of cholera and the collapse of its health services.
Peter Lundberg, the international Red Cross representative in Zimbabwe, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the international community was ready to respond to a "critical humanitarian need."
He said the Red Cross had exhausted initial cholera treatment and water purification supplies, and was preparing an appeal for more donations and cash. He was concerned about coming rains further spreading cholera in a population already weakened by disease and hunger. And he noted Zimbabwe's neighbors were being affected.
South Africa has been caring for scores of Zimbabwean cholera victims who have crossed the border seeking help.
The U.N. health organization said Tuesday 468 cholera cases had been detected in South Africa, nine of whom had died, and that Zimbabwe's epidemic also had spread to Mozambique and Botswana. WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said the cases in South Africa were probably a mix of cholera already found in South Africa and spillover from Zimbabwe.
Cholera is common in the region, but Zimbabwe had been able to cope better before its economy collapsed. Lundberg, of the Red Cross, said the worst outbreak until now in Zimbabwe had been in 1992, when about 3,000 cases were recorded.