JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Zimbabwe has barred former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and other prominent figures from visiting the country to assess the humanitarian crisis, the group said on Saturday.
They said they were denied travel visas to Zimbabwe despite the intervention of former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who is mediating the political conflict between President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
“We had hoped to go to Zimbabwe this morning but we had to cancel because the government has made it clear they will not co-operate,” Annan told a news briefing in Johannesburg.
Annan, Carter and Nelson Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel, are part of a group of prominent figures and former statesmen called The Elders.
“Our purpose in coming here was never to be involved in the political issues that have been so controversial in the establishment of a new government in Zimbabwe, but only to help with the humanitarian issue and we will continue to do that,” Carter said.
Zimbabwe’s government denied it had refused the three Elders permission to enter the country.
“The government of Zimbabwe has not barred Mr Annan and his team from coming to Zimbabwe,” Foreign Affairs minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi told reporters in Harare.
He said Annan had written to the Zimbabwe government informing it of a planned overnight visit to the country, but the former U.N chief and his team had been advised to reschedule their visit “to a mutually agreed date in the future.”
“It is quite clear that no meaningful assessment of the humanitarian situation could be undertaken in the few hours the delegation intended to be in Zimbabwe. It is on this basis that Mr. Annan was advised, in good time, to postpone the visit,” Mumbengegwi said.
He added that the government had just undertaken a “comprehensive assessment of the humanitarian situation” in the country with the World Food Program and the United Nations country team in Zimbabwe.
A statement by The Elders said they would stay in South Africa to gather more information on Zimbabwe and neighboring countries.
MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who had been scheduled to present a lecture in the southeastern city of Durban, met the three Elders in Johannesburg on Saturday and had discussed the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe, his spokesman said.
Annan, Carter and Machel will also speak to humanitarian agency representatives, civil groups, businesspeople and officials from Zimbabwe.
In Lima, U.S. President George W. Bush slammed Mugabe’s “illegitimate regime” which he said was stealing donor funds and called for the establishment of a new government.
“We call for an end to the Mugabe regime’s brutal repression of basic freedoms and for the formation of a legitimate government that represents the will of the people as expressed in the March 2008 elections,” Bush said in a statement in the Peruvian capital, where he is attending an Asia-Pacific summit.
A September 15 power-sharing agreement facilitated by Mbeki had raised hopes that a new leadership would get on with the task of rescuing Zimbabwe’s ruined economy.
But a stalemate over the allocation of key ministries in the new government has stalled a final agreement.
Critics accuse Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, of ruining the country but the 84-year-old leader says the economy has been sabotaged by forces opposed to his nationalist stance.
Inflation is rampant, food and fuel in short supply, and the Zimbabwean dollar is virtually worthless in a country once seen as southern Africa’s breadbasket.
Reporting by Muchena Zigomo; additional reporting by Nelson Banya in Harare; Editing by Sami Aboudi