HARARE, Dec 10 – The death toll from Zimbabwe’s cholera epidemic soared to nearly 750, the United Nations said on Wednesday, as rights groups denounced President Robert Mugabe over a wave of abductions of activists.,
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Institute blasted the "unprecedented spate of abductions of human rights defenders" and urged African countries to pressure Mugabe to take action to find them.
Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, has come under a barrage of international pressure to step down, amid a worsening cholera epidemic and a political stalemate after this year’s controversial elections.
The United Nations said that the deadly but treatable disease has claimed 746 lives, with more than 15,000 cases suspected across the country.
The latest data suggest that at least 157 more people have been killed by the disease since December 5, when the death toll was reported as 589.
The increase came despite assurances by Zimbabwe’s information minister, who said on Tuesday that "the cholera situation is under control."
"We have enough chemicals to purify the water. We have got enough foreign currency to buy pipes" to mend sanitation lines, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu added.
Zimbabwe is also hammered by the world’s highest inflation rate, last estimated in July at 231 million percent, and crippling food shortages that have left nearly half the population in need of aid.
Amid the turmoil, the rights groups said that four activists have gone missing over the last week, while the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said some of its supporters have also disappeared.
Human rights activist Jestina Mukoko, director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, was allegedly abducted from her home outside Harare one week ago, when 15 armed men hauled her off.
Two days later, Zacharia Nkomo – the brother of a lawyer working on Mukoko’s case – was taken from his home in southern Zimbabwe, while two of her colleagues were abducted on Monday at their workplace, the groups said.
"This shows the audacity of a regime that is desperate to stay in power, no matter what the cost," said Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International.
"The only way out of this problem is through unified pressure from outside, in particular of African leaders," she added.
The activists were taken "by people suspected to be working on behalf of Zimbabwean authorities," the groups’ statement said.
A Zimbabwean court has ordered police to search for Mukoko, her lawyers said.
Police have denied holding Mukoko, and Ndlovu on Tuesday denied any state-sponsored abductions.
"When some people are taken by the police for investigations, then their relatives say they have been abducted," Ndlovu told reporters.
The MDC said Gandhi Mudzingwa, a former assistant to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, was also abducted on Tuesday while 15 other supporters have been reported missing since last month.
The MDC seized a majority in parliament in March elections — the first time Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF had not been voted in as the largest party — when Tsvangirai defeated Mugabe in a first round presidential vote.
The outcome sparked a wave of violence that Amnesty says left 180 dead, mostly MDC supporters.
Tsvangirai pulled out of a June run-off, accusing Mugabe’s party of orchestrating the violence.
The rivals signed a power-sharing deal nearly three months ago, but talks on forming a unity government have stalled over disputes on how to divide control of key ministries.
Regional powerhouse South Africa still backs the unity government plan, which was brokered by its former president Thabo Mbeki.
But Western leaders have become increasingly vocal in demanding that Mugabe step, with US President George W. Bush this week calling for an end to the "tyranny" in Zimbabwe.