HARARE The African Union rejected tougher action against Zimbabwe on Tuesday and said only dialogue could solve the deepening crisis, while U.S. President George W. Bush joined calls for President Robert Mugabe to step down.
Zimbabwe's government, which accuses Western powers of exploiting a cholera epidemic that has killed nearly 600 people to try to bring down the veteran leader, said it was taking serious measures to deal with the threats.
"It is time for Robert Mugabe to go," Bush said in Washington. "Across the continent, African voices are bravely speaking out to say now is the time for him to step down."
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said countries in the region, notably South Africa, should do more to speed Mugabe's departure.
"They have unused leverage, at this point, that they could bring to bear. And we would hope, that they, as well as others, would bring to bear whatever leverage, political leverage, that they might have to help the situation," he told reporters in Washington.
But the African Union made clear it did not back calls for much tougher action.
"Only dialogue between the Zimbabwean parties, supported by the AU and other regional actors, can restore peace and stability to that country," said Salva Rweyemamu, spokesman for AU chairman and Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete.
Rweyemamu said sending peacekeeping troops or removing Mugabe by force, as proposed by prominent figures including Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Nobel peace laureate and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, were not options.
"We have a serious humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe. We have cholera. Do they think that we can eradicate cholera with guns?"
Many African leaders see Mugabe as a hero of the liberation war from white minority rule. They also resent foreign interference. South Africa will oppose any move to send troops to Zimbabwe, a senior government official there said.
Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai reached a power-sharing deal brokered by regional mediator Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's former president, in September. But they are deadlocked over how to implement it.
Asked whether the United States was no longer interested in the power-sharing agreement between the opposition and Mugabe, McCormack said: "At the end of the day, that was a sham. It was just one more feint (by Mugabe) to try to stay in power.
"It's hard to see Zimbabwe being able to lift itself out of this crisis with the help of the international system, with Robert Mugabe still there," he added.
The spreading cholera, coupled with chronic food shortages, has highlighted the economic collapse of the southern African country, once relatively prosperous. Basic foodstuffs are running out and prices of goods have been doubling every day.
Zimbabwe ordered prices of goods and services to be cut to December 3 levels after prices surged when the central bank increased bank withdrawal limits.
A loaf of bread cost 30 million Zimbabwe dollars -- worth $1 on the black market -- on Tuesday, compared to 2.5 million Zimbabwe dollars last Wednesday. A similar price freeze in June 2007 badly affected local businesses.
Mugabe's spokesman George Charamba said the West was using the cholera outbreak to try to bring down the president, who is 84. He accused Britain and the United States of trying to put Zimbabwe back on the U.N. Security Council agenda.
Zimbabwe was taking measures to address any threats, Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu told reporters.
"I will not tell you what ... but the Zimbabwe government is taking serious measures to offset any threats and any further sanctions on the people ... We won this country through the barrel of the gun and we will defend it the way we won it," he said, ruling out any idea of peacekeeping forces in Zimbabwe.
In a sign that Mugabe's traditional ally China may be distancing itself, Beijing stressed the need for the formation of a unity government between Mugabe and the opposition. China also offered aid.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the number of cholera cases stood at 13,960, with 589 deaths. "It is total chaos, three hospitals in Harare are closed due to a lack of personnel," spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said up to 60,000 could catch cholera if the epidemic gets out of control. The disease is preventable and treatable under normal circumstances, but Zimbabwe's health sector is near collapse.
Mugabe blames Western sanctions for Zimbabwe's hardship, while his critics accuse him of increasingly authoritarian rule. (Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria in Washington, Nelson Banya in Harare, George Obulutsa in Dar es Salaam, Chris Buckley in Beijing, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Paul Simao in Johannesburg; Writing by Marius Bosch; Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Mark Trevelyan)