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Elders Abandon Zimbabwe Visit; Meet Tsvangirai in Johannesburg

The Zimbabwe government has refused entry to three eminent individuals of The Elders group, including former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan - forcing them to abandon a planned humanitarian visit to Zimbabwe. VOA's Delia Robertson reports from our southern Africa bureau in Johannesburg, the group did however meet with Zimbabwe Prime Minister Designate Morgan Tsvangirai.

Annan, along with former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and Graça Machel, the wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela, had hoped to travel to Zimbabwe in an attempt to speed up humanitarian assistance to the people of that county. Annan said the group would continue their efforts to accomplish that goal.

"We had hoped to go to Zimbabwe this morning, but we have had to put it off because the government has made it clear they will not cooperate," he said. "But we agreed to continue our work in the country to determine the situation on the ground, what we can do to help, increase assistance to the Zimbabwean people, who are our main concern."

The group did meet Saturday with Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the majority Movement for Democratic Change and prime minister-designate of Zimbabwe who said the crisis in his country has reached unprecedented levels.

"The crisis in Zimbabwe has reached catastrophic levels, and we welcome any initiative to try to highlight this problem so that it can be attended to," said Tsvangirai. "I appreciate the very senior delegation for their interest, and I want to thank them for taking their time to meet with us, and hopefully, hopefully we can all make the collective effort to try to address this problem."

Zimbabwe has had no functioning government since early this year when parliament was adjourned for elections in March in which the MDC won a small majority in parliament, and Mr. Tsvangirai narrowly beat President Robert Mugabe in the presidential race. It was not sufficient to avoid a runoff, held in June, but which he did not contest after widespread state-sponsored violence.

The downturn in the economy has steeply accelerated, the official inflation rate was pegged at 231 million percent in July and the health services have virtually collapsed. Some 300 people have died in a widespread cholera epidemic currently gripping the country. Annan notes Zimbabwe has become a major regional problem also.

"Zimbabwean crisis is a regional problem, not just in Zimbabwe, any crisis that creates millions of refugees in the neighborhood is regional, and ... everyone should be interested in resolving it, so we are talking to as many stakeholders as possible before we leave the region on Monday," he said.

Mr. Carter said that despite the Zimbabwe government's allegations, the delegation did not intend to become embroiled in the politics of Zimbabwe.

"Our purpose in coming here was never to be involved in the political issues that have been so controversial in the establishment of a new government in Zimbabwe, but only to help with the humanitarian issues, and we'll continue to do that," he said.

Machel, an international rights campaigner, said that it is the Zimbabwean people who have been forgotten in the political wrangling.

"The process in Zimbabwe has been extremely dominated by the political issue, and the humanitarian crisis, the voices and faces of the people have not been very much in the map, and that's what we wanted to do," she said. "But we want the people of Zimbabwe to know that we care."

Meanwhile, in Lima, Peru where he is attending an APEC summit, President Bush said in spite of the the Zimbabwe administration's aggressive actions against its own people, the United States will continue to honor its commitment to provide emergency humanitarian assistance. He said the United States will also provide other forms of assistance pending the formation of a legitimate government that represents the will of the Zimbabwean people.