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UN provides $5m for Zimbabwe health workers

The U.N. children's fund UNICEF said on Saturday it had set up a $5 million fund to provide salaries for workers in Zimbabwe's ailing health sector.

Health workers in the southern African country - where many public hospitals have been forced to close due to a shortage of staff, drugs and equipment - have been refusing to turn up for work, demanding salaries in foreign currency.

They recently rejected a government offer of $50 for the lowest paid and $850 for doctors per month.

"I'm pleased to announce today that the United Nations will be providing $5 million for salaries for health workers. We want to provide resources for health care workers so they remain in their jobs," UNICEF executive director Ann Veneman told a news conference in Harare.

"It (the money) is going through a trust fund set up by some of the donors to provide incentives for health care workers to continue turning up for work."

Veneman and UNICEF officials would not give details about how the fund would work, except to say payments would be made to workers through the trust, not the government.

Veneman, who met President Robert Mugabe on Friday, is the first head of a U.N. agency to visit Zimbabwe in three years.

She said a cholera outbreak that has killed more than 2,000 people was worsening.

"It is still not under control. It's still expanding in some communities. There's an issue of water and sanitation systems, which are old. There's an urgent need to make sure people have access to clean and safe water," Veneman said.

U.N. figures show that 2,225 people have died from the cholera epidemic out of 42,675 cases. The outbreak has piled pressure on politicians to bury their differences and try to ease the suffering of millions.

"The cholera outbreak is the tip of the iceberg. The economy in Zimbabwe is crumbling, with the highest inflation rate in the world above 231 million (percent)," Veneman said.

"Over half the population is receiving food aid, health centres have closed and when the term starts there is no guarantee that there will be enough teachers."

Critics blame the economic meltdown on government mismanagement, including the seizure and redistribution of thousands of white-owned farms.

Mugabe, 84, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, says Western sanctions are the main cause of the economic crisis and worsening humanitarian situation.

Political analysts say the establishment of a unity government between Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is the best hope of reversing the economic slide and the humanitarian crisis.

But power-sharing talks are deadlocked over the control of key ministries.