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Zimbabwe faults West for cholera

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HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe on Saturday accused the West of waging biological warfare to deliberately start a cholera epidemic that has killed hundreds of people and sickened thousands.

The spread of the disease has focused the world's attention on the spectacular collapse of the southern African nation, which often blames its troubles on the West.

The claims in state media came the same day the government issued an official announcement detailing the constitutional amendment creating the post of prime minister. The announcement also set out other changes necessary to go forward with a power-sharing agreement that has been stalled since September.

Saturday's unilateral step by President Robert Mugabe's government could raise political tensions in the battered southern African country.

The state-run Herald newspaper said comments by the U.S. ambassador that the U.S. had been preparing for the cholera outbreak raised suspicions that it was responsible.

The Zimbabwean government's stranglehold on most sources of news makes such rhetoric an important tool for a regime struggling to hold onto power.

After the first cholera cases, U.S. and other aid workers braced for the waterborne disease to spread quickly in an economically ravaged country where the sewage system and medical care have fallen apart. Zimbabwe also faces a hunger crisis, the world's highest inflation and shortages of both the most basic necessities and the cash to buy them.

The Herald quoted the information minister, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, as blaming cholera on "serious biological chemical war ... a genocidal onslaught on the people of Zimbabwe by the British."

"Cholera is a calculated racist terrorist attack on Zimbabwe by the unrepentant former colonial power which has enlisted support from its American and Western allies so that they invade the country," Ndlovu was quoted as saying.

Experts blame the epidemic on Zimbabwe's economic collapse. The World Health Organization said Friday the death toll was 792 and that the number of cholera cases that have been reported since the outbreak began in August was 16,700. The epidemic has reached a fatality rate of 4.7 percent. To be under control it would have to be less than 1 percent, WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said Friday.

Aid agencies have warned that the outbreak could worsen with the onset of the rainy season and that the disease has already spread to Zimbabwe's neighbors.

Mugabe claimed Thursday that his government, with the help of international agencies, had contained the epidemic. That sparked accusations he was out of touch with his people's suffering.

Zimbabwe's decline began in 2000, when Mugabe began an often violent campaign to seize white-owned farms and give them to blacks; most of the land ended up in the hands of his cronies, and production has dropped. Hungry Zimbabweans scrounge for corn kernels spilled from trucks carrying the harvest to market in a nation that once exported food.

Zimbabwe once had among the best health care systems in sub-Saharan Africa. Now most hospitals have been forced to close as they can no longer afford drugs, equipment or wages for their staff. Officials are also unable to afford spare parts and chemicals for water systems.

Mugabe has ruled his country since its 1980 independence from Britain. He refused to leave office following disputed elections in March. U.S. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have called recently for the 84-year-old leader to step down.

Power sharing has been agreed to as a solution to the election dispute. But a bitter disagreement over which party gets key Cabinet posts has kept the agreement from becoming reality. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai is supposed to be prime minister in the unity government, with Mugabe continuing as president.

Tsvangirai's spokesman, Nelson Chamisa, said his party had not seen the constitutional announcement issued Saturday, and that there could be no power sharing without agreement on Cabinet posts. The opposition accuses Mugabe of trying to keep too many of the most powerful posts, including those overseeing the security forces.

With the so-called gazetting of the amendment, parliament, which is dominated by the opposition, would have to vote on it after 30 days.

"If these (Cabinet) issues are not resolved, we cannot guarantee the amendment will have safe passage in parliament," Chamisa said. "It is our wish to have this matter behind us. What has caused these months of suffering ... is the lack of adequate political will by ZANU-PF."

Repeated attempts to reach Mugabe's spokesman Saturday were not successful.