We'll fight invasion, Zimbabwe warns

South Africa dismisses talk of military intervention as WHO reveals cholera fears

George Bush has added his voice to the clamour of foreign leaders demanding the removal of President Robert Mugabe as the World Health Organisation warned that the total number of people infected by a cholera epidemic could reach 60,000.

But even as President Bush called for an end to Mr Mugabe's "tyranny", South Africa made it clear that it would resist any attempt to overthrow by force the Zimbabwean leader who is being blamed for the unprecedented cholera epidemic sweeping across his country where the health and water distribution systems have collapsed. The disease is spreading to neighbouring nations.

The Zimbabwe government warned it was actively preparing to face increased international threats, after the European Union added 11 names to a blacklist of 160 Mugabe associates hit by a travel ban and assets freeze. "I will not tell you what... but the Zimbabwe government is taking serious measures to offset any threats and any further sanctions on the people," the Zimbabwean Information Minister, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, told reporters in Harare. "We won this country through the barrel of the gun and we will defend it the way we won it."

Mr Bush, in a statement yesterday, urged African leaders to unite to ensure the departure of the Zimbabwean leader. "It is time for Robert Mugabe to go. Across the continent, African voices are bravely speaking out to say now is the time for him to step down," said the outgoing US President.

But most of Mr Mugabe's neighbours have continued to favour dialogue, insisting that a stalled political deal must be implemented with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Apart from Botswana, which has been vocal in its criticism of Mr Mugabe, the African leaders calling on Mr Mugabe to step aside are from states further afield, such as Kenya.

The African Union is generally resistant to being dictated to by outside powers, which for many Africans smacks of colonial days. But the humanitarian emergency in Zimbabwe has led to increased numbers of Zimbabweans fleeing across the border, particularly to South Africa, in search of life-saving medical treatment.

"Only dialogue between the Zimbabwean parties, supported by the AU and other regional actors, can restore peace and stability to that country," said Salva Rweyemamu, a spokesman for AU chairman and Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete. "We have a serious humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe. We have cholera. Do they think that we can eradicate cholera with guns?"

The WHO said its plans catered for up to 60,000 people infected by the water-borne disease if the situation worsens. It has officially killed 500 people although Zimbabwean health ministry officials say that the death toll is closer to 5,000.