HARARE – Cholera has killed more than 3,000 Zimbabweans and infected at least 57,000, the World Health Organization said on Wednesday, making it the deadliest outbreak in Africa in 15 years.
The disease has spread as rival political parties struggle to implement a power-sharing agreement reached in September and seen as a chance to ease the humanitarian crisis and save the faltering economy.
Regional leaders decided at a summit on Tuesday that a unity government should be formed next month. Fears of the cholera spreading in Zimbabwe have stepped up pressure on rival parties to end the political uncertainty.
WHO figures showed an increase of 57 deaths and 1,579 new infections since Tuesday. The outbreak has hit the entire country, leading to a high overall case fatality rate of 5.3 percent.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has said he agrees to form a government with President Robert Mugabe although his Movement for Democratic Change voiced disappointment with the deal reached at the summit, a South African newspaper reported.
MDC officials are expected to meet on Friday to discuss how to proceed.
“It’s a historic decision we will make. I hope the party will be united in ensuring that we respond to the needs on the ground and the expectations of Zimbabweans,” Tsvangirai told reporters in Harare.
But Zimbabwe’s state-run Herald newspaper said MDC Secretary-General Tendai Biti, considered more hard-line than Tsvangirai, had made a “sudden U-turn” against implementing the deal.
The MDC has said the outcome of the summit fell “far short of our expectations” but in a statement it denied that there were divisions within the party.
“There are struggles going on internally, between the pragmatists and the hawks in terms of their contrasting positions on the power-sharing arrangement,” Zimbabwean political analyst Eldred Masunungure said.
The prospect of a split within the MDC over implementation of the September pact added to uncertainty over whether a new Zimbabwean leadership would be united enough to tackle an acute economic crisis.
Mugabe, who has made it clear he would set up a government without the opposition if need be, said talks were concluded and a new cabinet could now be formed.
South Africa’s Star newspaper quoted Tsvangirai as saying that resolving outstanding issues over a government was a “work in progress.”
“Everyone agrees that — subject to the clearing of all the issues that are outstanding — a coalition government can be formed,” he said.
“After all, the whole idea of these negotiations is to form a coalition government, and I therefore agreed to that principle.”
The 15-nation Southern African Development Community said after the summit it had agreed that Tsvangirai should be sworn in as prime minister by February 11.
The signing of the pact is seen as an opportunity to prevent a total economic collapse that would add to the strain on neighboring countries already hosting millions of Zimbabweans who fled in search of work.
In Washington, U.S. officials said the United States wants the United Nations to take strong action to push Mugabe to reach the power-sharing agreement.
A State Department official said President Barack Obama’s administration was pushing Zimbabwe’s neighbors to use their influence over Mugabe but was also exploring U.N. Security Council action to help ease the crisis.
Mugabe and his officials are subject to a host of U.S., British and European Union sanctions but the United Nations has not so far imposed punitive measures.