Zimbabwe 'close to collapse'

Zimbabwe is on the brink of collapse, battered by economic chaos and weakened by disease, world leaders warned today.

Zimbabwe is on the brink of collapse, battered by economic chaos and weakened by disease, world leaders warned today.

South Africa's president Kgalema Motlanthe said the situation "may implode and collapse" and announced a new round of talks to help resolve the crisis.

Former US president Jimmy Carter announced the situation there was "much worse than anything we ever imagined".

The warnings came as a cholera epidemic caused by Zimbabwe's political and economic collapse killed hundreds of Zimbabweans and spilled across the border into South Africa.

Mr Motlanthe and the leader of the country's ruling party, Jacob Zuma, expressed grave concern at Zimbabwe's deepening humanitarian crisis.

"Unless this root cause of the political absence of a legitimate government is solved, the situation will get worse and may implode and collapse," Mr Motlanthe said.

Zimbabwe has been in political deadlock since opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai won the most votes in the March presidential election but not enough to avoid a runoff. Long-standing president Robert Mugabe, who has been in power since independence in 1980, claimed victory in the June runoff after Mr Tsvangirai dropped out over violence aimed at his supporters.

The two agreed in September to share power but the talks have stalled over the allocation of Cabinet posts, with the opposition accusing Mugabe of trying to hold on to key positions.

Mediation led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki will resume tomorrow and centre on a constitutional amendment to allow a power-sharing government.

Mr Zuma, the African National Congress leader who is likely to be the country's next president, said that a team would be sent "soon" to Zimbabwe.

South Africa's harder stance against Mugabe was welcomed Mr Carter, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and children's advocate Graca Machel.

The three are part of a group called The Elders that was formed by former South African President Nelson Mandela to help foster peace.

They had planned to visit Zimbabwe over the weekend on a humanitarian mission but Mugabe's government refused to give them visas, saying the trip had not been co-ordinated with the government beforehand.

Instead, they met with charity, donor and civil leaders from Zimbabwe in neighbouring South Africa.

Mr Carter said the stories they heard on the collapse of education, health and agriculture "are all indications that the crisis in Zimbabwe is much worse than anything we ever imagined."

He said "the leadership in Harare don't want to admit there is a crisis."

Adding to the implied criticism of regional leaders, he said "I get the feeling that even the leaders of SADC (the Southern African Development Community) do not know what is going on" in Zimbabwe.

He called for the southern Africans as well as the African Union and the United Nations to send assessment teams to Zimbabwe.

Mr Annan said they also met Zimbabwe opposition leaders and stressed to them that "the most important thing is the people's lives." He said they would have given the same message to Mugabe, if they had had a chance.

Both the Elders and the South African leaders agreed that it was difficult to separate Zimbabwe's humanitarian crisis from the political issues.

"These are two sides of the same coin and we need to deal with them simultaneously with the urgency they deserve," Mr Motlanthe said.

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