HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe declared a national emergency as it battled to halt a cholera outbreak that has killed more than 560 people and forced its government to appeal for international assistance.
Neighboring South Africa said it was extremely concerned about conditions in the state. Thousands of Zimbabweans are believed to cross the border, often illegally, into South Africa each day.
Economic meltdown in Zimbabwe, isolated by Western countries under President Robert Mugabe’s increasingly authoritarian rule, has left the health system ill-prepared to cope with an epidemic that it once would have prevented or treated easily.
There is not enough money to pay doctors and nurses or buy medicine.
South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu said Mugabe must step down or be removed by force.
“I think now that the world must say: ‘You have been responsible with your cohorts for gross violations, and you are going to face indictment in The Hague unless you step down,” Tutu, a Nobel peace prize winner, told Dutch television.
Tutu, one of the continent’s leading voices against the former apartheid regime in South Africa, said the African Union or the Southern African Development Community (SADC) would have the military capacity to remove Mugabe, 84.
“He has destroyed a wonderful country. A country that used to be a bread basket -- it has now become a basket case,” Tutu said.
Zimbabwe’s Health Minister said the country’s health services were not working.
“Our central hospitals are literally not functioning. Our staff is de-motivated and we need your support to ensure that they start coming to work and our health system is revived,” David Parirenyatwa was quoted by the state-run Herald newspaper as saying in an emergency appeal to donors.
Parirenyatwa said Zimbabwe needed medicine, medical equipment and food for patients and child feeding programs.
The United Nations humanitarian office estimates the death toll from the cholera outbreak at 565 people, with the capital Harare the worst affected. The cases have been fueled by the collapse of the water system, which has forced residents to drink from contaminated wells and streams.
Hopes of rescuing Zimbabwe from the humanitarian crisis are complicated by the deadlock between Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai over how to implement a power-sharing pact.
Analysts said worsening conditions may force Mugabe’s government to mend relations with donors and other governments.
“I think if this continues they are in a very, very difficult position and I think in that position they may have to start thinking about taking any friends they can get, or any help they can get,” University of Johannesburg political analyst Steven Friedman said.
Zimbabwe’s neighbors, faced with cholera patients crossing their borders, moved to help the country, while the World Health Organization said it was preparing to send its own team.
South Africa said it would look to work with other regional countries to help. President Kgalema Motlanthe is expected to meet with officials and aid groups to discuss the crisis, a government spokesman told South Africa’s 702 Talk Radio.
Western nations, which have accused Mugabe of running the once prosperous nation into the ground, also promised aid. European Union ministers have agreed to provide an initial 200,000 euros to the Red Cross and other aid agencies.
“We are in touch with our partners to study the conditions of a European response,” French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in a statement. France holds the rotating EU presidency.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the world would not turn its back on Zimbabwe no matter how much it disagreed with Mugabe’s 28-year rule.
“Mugabe’s failed state is no longer willing or capable of protecting its people,” Brown said in a statement.
“The international community’s differences with Mugabe will not prevent us doing so -- we are increasing our development aid, and calling on others to follow suit.”
Critics blame the economic crisis on Mugabe’s policies, such as seizing white-owned farms to give to black Zimbabweans. The 84-year-old leader, in power since independence from Britain, blames sanctions from Western countries.
Meanwhile, Zimbabwe police arrested 10 soldiers over violent clashes with Harare citizens. Some “rogue” soldiers, angry after not being able to withdraw money from cash-strapped banks, damaged property earlier this week.
Tensions remained high in the capital. Dozens of anti-riot police with batons and teargas canisters patrolled a park in central Harare where members of a constitutional lobby group planned to protest to demand a new constitution.
Additional reporting by Wendell Roelf in Cape Town; Moabi Phia in Gaborone; Muchena Zigomo in Johannesburg; Adrian Croft in London; Niclas Mika in Amsterdam; Writing by Gordon Bell; Editing by Matthew Jones