LONDON, Dec. 22, 2008 -- In the latest round of criticism against Zimbabwe's embattled President Robert Mugabe, Britain's Africa minister insisted today that the 84-year-old leader must step down.
After months of protests inside and outside the country, Mugabe signed a power-sharing deal with the leader of the opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai, Sept. 15.
But as both men have continued to battle over control of the government and important ministries, Zimbabwe has lurched from crisis to crisis.
Amid an increasingly fraught economic climate, Zimbabweans are now caught in the grip of a cholera epidemic, which has killed 1,111 people, according to figures released Thursday by the World Health Organization.
Paul Garwood of the organization's Department of Health Action in Crises, who recently returned from Zimbabwe, told ABC News that people there are suffering on many different levels. "The latest situation I saw was a health system in great need of assistance in terms of ... supplies, medicines, water and improvements in sanitation systems," he said. "In the immediate term, the great need is a response to the cholera outbreak, and there is a great need to control outbreaks that are springing up in different parts of the country."
According to the World Health Organization, 20,581 Zimbabweans have been struck with cholera since the outbreak of the disease in August.
On Dec. 13, the country's state-run newspaper, The Herald, quoted the information minister, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, as saying, "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 can invade the country."
Ndlovu went on to describe the disease as a "serious biological chemical war ... a genocidal onslaught on the people of Zimbabwe by the British."
The London Times reported today that 18 of the 21 companies blacklisted by the United States for financially supporting the Mugabe regime have been operating with impunity in Britain, the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands and the British Virgin Islands.
Blacklisted Firms Deny Role
At the top of the list, according to the Times, is the private equity firm, Breco, controlled by U.K.-based businessman John Bredenkamp. On its Web site, the U.S. Treasury describes Bredencamp as "a well-known Mugabe insider involved in various business activities, including tobacco trading, gray-market arms trading and trafficking, equity investments, oil distribution, tourism, sports management and diamond extraction.
"Through a sophisticated web of companies, Bredenkamp has financially propped up the regime and provided other support to a number of its high-ranking officials. He also has financed and provided logistical support to a number of Zimbabwean parastatal entities."
A spokesman for Bredenkamp said that he "vehemently denies all these charges," adding, "Mr. Bredenkamp has not met Mr. Mugabe for over 23 years neither is he a close associate of any minister or Zanu-PF official." And, the spokesman said, the company is challenging the U.S. Treasury Department designation.
$100M Loaned to Zimbabwe
Another businessman blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury, Zimbabwean Muller Rautenbach, is a shareholder in the Central African Mining and Exploration Company, or CAMEC, which loaned Mugabe's government $100 million.
In an e-mail to ABC News, CAMEC spokesman Jon Simmons said that the company loaned the money so that the government could make its "payments to a series of mainly international creditors for a variety of commodities, primarily for seeds, grain, fertilizer and fuel.
"CAMEC undertook appropriate due diligence, as a result of which it is satisfied that the payments were used for these purposes. CAMEC has no reason to believe that the money may have been used for other purposes and has seen no evidence to suggest that this may be the case."
Today's remarks by Britain's Africa minister, Mark Malloch Brown, join a chorus of criticism leveled against Mugabe by U.S. and EU government figures.
The U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Jendayi Frazer, said Thursday that "There is a complete collapse right now" in Zimbabwe.
"We think that the person who has ruined the country ... that he needs to step down," Frazer added.
Responding to her comments Friday, Mugabe called Frazer "a little girl," declaring that "Zimbabwe is mine.
U.S. Is 'Absolutely Right'
"I will never, never sell my country. I will never, never, never surrender," he said, speaking before a crowd of flag-waving supporters at a three-day convention in Bindura, 60 miles northeast of Harare, the capital.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters that the "last time the world checked, Zimbabwe belonged to the people of Zimbabwe," adding that Mugabe's statement "sums up in a concise way what is at the root of Zimbabwe's problems."
Today, Mark Malloch Brown repeated Frazer's words, saying, "The Americans are absolutely right -- he is going to have to step aside."
But while few people expect Mugabe to go quietly after nearly three decades in power, aid workers in the country are struggling to cope with the rising number of cholera cases in urban and rural Zimbabwe.
More Serious Health Risks
Garwood of the World Health Organization told ABC News that Zimbabwe is now in serious danger of facing more serious health risks because hunger and malnutrition are on the rise. "There are great challenges with access to food in many parts of the country," he said. "By having people malnourished it just accentuates risks of increases of various diseases and makes people more prone to instances of cholera."
Even though Zimbabwe has modern hospitals and well-trained doctors, according to Garwood, the meager wages given to health workers have meant a virtual shutdown of these facilities as many workers search for other ways to bring in food.
Similarly, Zimbabwe -- once known as Africa's breadbasket -- now struggles to feed its own in the aftermath of years of inflation.
Mugabe has ruled the country since its 1980 independence from Britain.
Critics blame his policies for the ruin of the once-productive nation, while Mugabe blames Western sanctions for the country's economic meltdown.
Opposition leader Tsvangirai Friday said that he intends to ask his party, the Movement for Democratic Change, to halt negotiations unless political detainees are released or charged by Jan. 1.
Opposition Party Speaks
He told reporters in Botswana that more than 42 members of his opposition party and civil society have been abducted in the past two months. They include three journalists, and their whereabouts remain unknown.
"The MDC can no longer sit at the same negotiating table with a party that is abducting our members and other innocent civilians and refusing to produce any of them before a court of law," Tsvangirai said.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this story.