HARARE Zimbabwe's government has accused Britain of using a cholera epidemic to rally Western support for an invasion of the collapsing southern African nation, a state-run newspaper said on Sunday.
President Robert Mugabe is under mounting pressure from the international community, especially Western nations which accuse him of ruining the once prosperous country and exposing its people to famine and disease.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown has branded Mugabe's government a "blood-stained regime" and said it was responsible for the cholera epidemic that has killed at least 575 people. The world must tell Mugabe "enough is enough," he said.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Friday the veteran leader's departure from office was long overdue. On Sunday she repeated this assessment and said she and Foreign Secretary David Miliband had discussed by telephone what to do about it.
The growing Western criticism signalled a plot to oust Mugabe's government militarily, Mugabe's spokesman George Charamba said.
"I don't know what this mad prime minister (Brown) is talking about. He is asking for an invasion of Zimbabwe ... but he will come unstuck," Charamba told the state-controlled Sunday Mail.
The government often blames Britain and other Western nations for Zimbabwe's meltdown, saying sanctions against Mugabe and his inner circle have sabotaged the economy.
In Washington, Rice told ABC's "This Week" program that she was "appalled" at the international community's inability to deal with "tyrants" such as Mugabe.
"We are now seeing it, I think, in a very, very sad way in Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe should have gone a long time ago," Rice said. "And we can't seem to mobilise the international will to do it.
"I am going to continue to try to press in the international community. I even talked with my British colleague, David Miliband, just this morning about trying to see what we can do to get a renewed push to have this solved."
AFRICANS SPEAK OUT
African nations are also growing more uncomfortable with Mugabe, though some still view the 84-year-old as a hero of Africa's liberation era.
Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga on Sunday repeated a previous call for Mugabe to step down and urged the African Union to hold an emergency summit to formulate a resolution to send troops into Zimbabwe to deal with the crisis.
"We must not fail the dying people of Zimbabwe in this hour of their greatest need ... we must assist them to end this vile dictatorship, we must beg them not to despair," Odinga told a news conference in Nairobi.
Botswanan Foreign Minister Phandu Skelemani and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel peace laureate, have also called for Mugabe's removal.
"There is bitter disappointment in the current leadership," former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian, said in a statement issued by the Elders, a group of prominent figures that includes ex-U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Tutu.
"This government has not demonstrated the ability to lead the country out of its current crisis," said Annan, who along with Carter and Graca Machel, the wife of Nelson Mandela, was denied entry to Zimbabwe last month on a humanitarian visit.
Archbishop of York John Sentamu agreed but went further, writing in the Observer newspaper that "Mugabe and his henchmen" should face trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. "The time to remove them from power has come."
Douglas Alexander, Britain's international development minister, said on Sunday it was important Africans led the opposition to Mugabe's government. "Now is the time for Africa to stand up and be counted," he said.
Zimbabwe is on the verge of collapse. Food stocks are running out, unemployment is above 80 percent and prices double every 24 hours. The health system is in tatters, unable to treat many of those infected with cholera.
The epidemic has forced Zimbabwe to declare a national emergency and appeal for foreign help. Britain is among European nations that have promised aid. South Africa, Zimbabwe's richest neighbour, has also pledged aid.
The European Union is considering imposing new sanctions on Zimbabwe next week unless progress is made in breaking the deadlock between Mugabe and the opposition MDC over how to implement a power-sharing deal.
(Additional reporting by Kate Kelland in London, Andrew Cawthorne in Nairobi and Susan Cornwell in Washington; editing by Mohammad Zargham)