UN says cholera death toll in Zimbabwe reaches 746

The death toll from Zimbabwe’s cholera outbreak has risen sharply, the United Nations said Wednesday, reporting 746 deaths and 15,572 cases of the water-borne disease.

Cholera has spread in Zimbabwe because of the country’s crumbling health care system and water infrastructure. Last week, Zimbabwe declared a health emergency because of cholera and the collapse of its health services.

The U.N. humanitarian office in Geneva reported Tuesday that 589 people had died out of 13,960 cases.

Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu claimed the disease was “under control.”

However, aid agencies have warned about coming rains further spreading cholera in a population already weakened by disease and hunger.

There are also concerns about Zimbabwe’s neighbors being affected. South Africa has been caring for scores of Zimbabwean cholera victims who have crossed the border seeking help. Almost 500 cholera cases have been detected in South Africa, nine of whom died.

Also Wednesday, Nobel peace laureate Martti Ahtisaari criticized Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, saying the international community failed to meet its obligation to intervene when “something goes terribly wrong, as it has.”

He said Mugabe “was the hope of the continent after Zimbabwe was born. How this desire for absolute power make somebody behave the way he has done? I feel very sad about that.”

Mugabe, 84, has ruled his country since its 1980 independence from Britain and has refused to leave office following disputed elections in March. A power-sharing deal worked out in September with the opposition has been deadlocked over how to divvy up Cabinet posts.

Meanwhile, a group of lawyers marched peacefully through downtown Harare calling for the release of human rights activist Jestina Mukoko.

Mukoko, director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, was allegedly taken from her home a week ago, when activists held nationwide protests against the country’s deepening economic and health crises.

Zimbabwean security officials regularly detain, harass and beat opponents of Mugabe’s increasingly autocratic rule, although the government denies such allegations.

A judge on Tuesday ordered police to investigate Mukoko’s disappearance.

The lawyers — some dressed in their black gowns — carried placards reading: “Stop abductions now” and calling Mukoko a “woman of peace.”

Associated Press writer Frank Jordans in Geneva and Doug Mellgren in Oslo contributed to this report.