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Page last updated at 15:38 GMT, Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Zimbabwe claims plot for invasion

People carry water collected from an unprotected well in Harare on 8 December 2008
Cholera is an easily treatable disease spread through unclean water

Zimbabwe's president has accused the UK and US of plotting an invasion in the wake of the cholera outbreak.

A presidential spokesman told state media they would not be surprised if the British and Americans tried to "spring a 'mission'" involving the UN.

It came as a regional delegation continued its visit to Zimbabwe to assess the escalating outbreak.

Meanwhile, South Africa's health minister visited border towns with Zimbabwe where the epidemic has spread.

On Monday, European Union nations ramped up the diplomatic pressure on Zimbabwe's government, broadening sanctions on President Robert Mugabe and his inner circle, while French President Nicolas Sarkozy added his voice to the growing calls for the end of the 84-year-old's rule.

Only dialogue between the Zimbabwean parties, supported by the AU and other regional actors, can restore peace and stability to that country
Salva Rweyemamu
Spokesman for the AU chairman

Former colonial power Britain has led calls for Mr Mugabe to go. The US, as well as African countries like Botswana and Kenya, have also said Mugabe should step down.

But the 53-member African Union said on Tuesday the only solution to the Zimbabwe crisis was the power-sharing talks.

Zimbabwe's ruling Zanu-PF and opposition Movement for Democratic Change have been deadlocked in negotiations over a unity government since September, following disputed elections.

"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, a spokesman for AU chairman and Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, Reuters news agency reports.

Cases rising

The Zimbabwean presidential spokesman told the state-owned Herald newspaper that Western countries were planning to bring Zimbabwe before the UN Security Council by claiming the cholera epidemic and food shortages had incapacitated the country's government.

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South Africa, SADC and the world should tell Robert Mugabe to step down. He has caused too much damage to Zimbabwe
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"The British and the Americans are dead set on bringing Zimbabwe back to the UN Security Council," George Charamba was quoted as saying.

"They are also dead set on ensuring that there is an invasion of Zimbabwe but without themselves carrying it out. In those circumstances, they will stop at nothing.

"We would not be surprised if they spring a 'mission' involving the UN," he added.

The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the number of cholera cases in Zimbabwe stood at 13,960 with 589 deaths.

But doctors say the death toll could be much higher, while the UN children's agency Unicef has warned 60,000 cholera cases could emerge in the coming weeks.

Peter Lundberg of the International Red Cross in Zimbabwe said there had been progress in the fight against cholera, but warned the outbreak could get worse.

"The biggest worry right now is if these rains - because we are in the rainy season - if they start to recur again - we could really see a very negative downturn with this massive increase in cases again," he told the BBC.

South African Health Minister Barbara Hogan led a team of health experts on Tuesday to assess the cholera outbreak in Limpopo province bordering Zimbabwe, where at least eight people have died from the disease and 650 people are being treated.

A Zimbabwean family bury a relative who died of cholera in Seke Chitungwiza, near Harare, on 8 December 2008
Cholera cases could top 60,000 in the coming weeks, warn aid agencies

The BBC's Jonah Fisher in the border town of Musina says South Africa's medical services are coping so far with the scores of sick Zimbabweans crossing the border every day looking for treatment.

But there is concern that people are sleeping in the open in conditions where the easily treatable could easily spread, while sanitation is poor at the site where new arrivals are being processed.

"Ten thousand people or more infected with cholera in Zimbabwe. The risk is very high here," a South African man in Musina told the BBC. "They are sleeping here, they bath here, they do everything here, so I mean, the spreading of cholera, the risk is very high."

Meanwhile, a Southern African Development Community team dispatched to Zimbabwe on Monday is continuing to look at the extent of the epidemic.

The once-vibrant economy is now suffering from the world's highest inflation, last estimated at 231m% in July.

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