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By Peta Thornycroft, Basildon Peta, Stanley Gama and Eleanor Momberg
The Zimbabwe dollar halved in value every five to 10 minutes on Friday as the country crumbled to depths disastrous even by Zimbabwean standards.
With the nation ravaged by a hunger crisis and in the grips of a cholera epidemic, the United States and the United Kingdom called for the removal of President Robert Mugabe and his regime, while South Africa geared up to send more medical supplies and food to the starving Zimbabwean people.
The meltdown of the economy was graphically illustrated by hyper-inflation - the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe handed out the new Z$10-million and Z$100-million notes to street traders on Friday, and is to release a Z$200-million note on Monday. At the time of going to press, Z$100-million was worth about $14.
The US said at the weekend that Mugabe's departure from office was long overdue and the food crisis and cholera epidemic meant it was now vital for the international community to act, Reuters reported.
"It's well past time for Robert Mugabe to leave," Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, said in Copenhagen.
Rice said the stalled power-sharing talks, a "sham election" earlier in 2008, economic meltdown and the humanitarian toll from the cholera epidemic required swift action.
"If this is not evidence to the international community that it's time to stand up for what is right, I don't know what will be," Rice told a news conference.
"Frankly the nations of the region have to lead it."
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown yesterday added his voice to the condemnation of Mugabe, saying the world should tell the 84-year-old ruler "enough is enough". He urged co-ordinated international action to help Zimbabwe overcome food shortages and the cholera epidemic.
Zimbabwe has declared an emergency and appealed for international help to battle a cholera outbreak that has killed 575 people with 12 700 reported cases of the disease, according to the United Nations.
Zimbabwe does not have the funds to pay doctors and nurses or buy medicine, and aid agency Oxfam said at least 300 000 people weakened by lack of food were in danger from the epidemic.
"Millions of people were already facing starvation. With unemployment over 80 percent and food unavailable across the country, they now have to contend with cholera and other diseases as the water and sanitation systems break down," Peter Mutoredzanwa, the country director for Oxfam in Zimbabwe, said.
South Africa will announce an aid package for Zimbabwe this week, with the provision that all aid should be distributed in a non-partisan way. Hopes of rescuing Zimbabwe from the humanitarian crisis are complicated by the deadlock between Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), about how to implement a power-sharing agreement.
In the midst of the crises, Zimbabweans are still being terrorised by Mugabe's regime.
Fifteen MDC activists were abducted six weeks ago from their homes in Banket, about 70km north of Harare. They are still missing, despite a Harare high court order for the police to produce them.
Jestina Mukoko, a human rights activist, was also abducted from her home, in Norton, about 40km from Harare, before dawn on Wednesday. But on Friday, Beatrice Mtetwa, a human rights lawyer, was unable to find a judge to hear an urgent application to instruct the police to produce Mukoko.
Mtetwa was the lawyer who represented the family of activist Tonderai Ndira, who was abducted from his home in the Mabvuku township southeast of Harare in May.
His body was found a week later and an autopsy showed that he had been killed minutes after he was dragged out of his house and shoved into an unmarked vehicle.
Nelson Chamisa, the MDC spokesperson, appealed on Saturday to regional and other African leaders to act.
"We call upon the Southern African Development Community chairperson, President Kgalema Motlanthe, and the African Union chairperson, President Jakaya Kikwete, to urgently intervene and make sure that the 16 disappeared are released," said Chamisa in a statement.
The MDC is itself facing criticism from its own members over the absence of its leaders during the crisis.
MDC sources said that "while the country is dying", Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC leader, was believed to be in Botswana, Thokozani Khuipe, the deputy leader, was in South Africa, Tendai Biti, the secretary-general, was in Australia and Lovemore Moyo, the national chairman, was in the US.
It is not clear if the leaders are in exile.
"But the tyrant Mugabe is at home and conducting a predictable programme," one MDC source said.
With service delivery having virtually collapsed, the cholera epidemic is worsening and is threatening thousands more people.
The Sunday Independent toured the townships of Harare and the city centre on Saturday and discovered that the government has done nothing to rectify the problems that have helped cholera to escalate at an alarming rate in the country.
Doctors, most of whom are on strike because of poor salaries and untenable working conditions, paint a grim picture, unless more international aid - which is beginning to flow into the country to assist in the fight against cholera - is made available soon.
Meanwhile, the South African government is to ask non-governmental organisations, churches and international donors already operating in Zimbabwe to distribute food and other aid to desperate people.
This will prevent food being used as a political weapon by either of the parties involved in the power-sharing talks and to ensure that those most in need of nutrition receive it.
This condition will be set when a South African government delegation visits Zimbabwe on Monday on a fact-finding mission.