The death toll from Zimbabwe’s cholera epidemic soared to nearly 750, the United Nations said Wednesday, as rights groups denounced President Robert Mugabe over a wave of abductions of activists.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Institute blasted the "unprecedented spate of abductions of human rights defenders" and urged African countries to pressure Mugabe to take action to find them.
Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, has come under a barrage of international pressure to step down, amid a worsening cholera epidemic and a political stalemate after this year’s controversial elections.
The United Nations said Wednesday that the deadly but treatable disease has claimed 746 lives, with more than 15,000 cases suspected across the country.
The latest data suggest that at least 157 more people have been killed by the disease since December 5, when the death toll was reported as 589.
The increase came despite assurances by Zimbabwe’s information minister, who said Tuesday that "the cholera situation is under control."
"We have enough chemicals to purify the water. We have got enough foreign currency to buy pipes" to mend sanitation lines, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu added.
Zimbabwe is also hammered by the world’s highest inflation rate, last estimated in July at 231 million percent, and crippling food shortages that have left nearly half the population in need of aid.
Amid the turmoil, the rights groups said that four activists have gone missing over the last week, while the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said some of its supporters have also disappeared.
Human rights activist Jestina Mukoko, director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, was allegedly abducted from her home outside Harare one week ago, when 15 armed men hauled her off.
Two days later, Zacharia Nkomo – the brother of a lawyer working on Mukoko’s case – was taken from his home in southern Zimbabwe, while two of her colleagues were abducted on Monday at their workplace, the groups said.
"This shows the audacity of a regime that is desperate to stay in power, no matter what the cost," said Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International.