President Robert Mugabe's declaration that there was "no cholera" in Zimbabwe was sarcasm, the state newspaper reported Friday, as the opposition expressed concerns about his remarks on an epidemic that has killed nearly 800 people.
Friday's Herald newspaper quoted Mugabe's spokesman George Charamaba as saying Mugabe had been sarcastic and wanted to make the point that the crisis was over.
The United Nations, though, said Friday that the death toll from the waterborne disease had risen to 792 and that the number of cases had increased to 16,700.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that he "cannot agree" with Mugabe's assessment that the epidemic has ended.
Cholera has spread rapidly in the southern African nation because of the country's crumbling health care system and the lack of clean water.
Zimbabwe's opposition accused Mugabe of being disingenuous for his "careless and reckless" remarks.
Aid agencies have warned that the outbreak could worsen with the onset of the rainy season and the disease already has spread to Zimbabwe's neighbors.
South African authorities have declared the cholera-hit border region with Zimbabwe a disaster area. About 664 people have been treated for the disease and at least eight people have died in South Africa.
Mugabe has ruled his country since its 1980 independence from Britain and has 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.
On Friday, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband blamed Mugabe for causing "death and destruction on a grand scale" and said that cholera remains a "very significant problem" in the country.
"There is a tragedy in Zimbabwe and it's a manmade tragedy and the man whose made it is the head of the government, and he's immiserated his own people, he's caused death and destruction on a grand scale," Miliband told Associated Press Television News.
Speaking on the sidelines of a European Union summit in Brussels, Miliband said Mugabe's "rogue government" was getting in the way of international efforts to provide humanitarian aid for the country to fight the cholera outbreak.
On Thursday, the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe told reporters at the State Department that the cholera problem is getting worse.
"The situation is truly grim," James McGee said. "One man and his cronies - Robert Mugabe - are holding this country hostage."
A power-sharing deal worked out in September with the opposition has been deadlocked over how to divide up Cabinet posts. The political impasse has paralyzed public services, including health and education, amid a deepening economic collapse and runaway inflation.
Former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who is mediating the power-sharing talks, rejected calls for Mugabe to step down.
"None of the Zimbabweans parties have made such a demand to us and so we follow what Zimbabwean parties think and what they have decided is that it is important to get together to solve the problems of their country," reporters in Maputo, the Mozambican capital.
Associated Press Writer Emmanuel Camillo contributed to this from Maputo, Mozambique.
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