HARARE - Calls for international intervention to defuse Zimbabwe's post-election crisis mounted on Tuesday as the US urged China to call back a ship loaded with weapons for President Robert Mugabe's regime.
As church leaders in the troubled southern African nation warned rising violence could reach genocidal levels, the government in Beijing defended its sales of arms but hinted the cargo might not be delivered.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon meanwhile described the continued delay in announcing results for the March 29 presidential election as unacceptable while Australia called an ongoing recount a ploy by Mugabe to steal victory.
Reports of violence have been steadily increasing since polling day with the opposition claiming 10 of its followers have been killed by pro-Mugabe militias and thousands have been forced to flee their homes.
In a joint statement, signed by the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference and the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, church leaders all called for outside help to end unrest.
"Organised violence perpetrated against individuals, families and communities who are accused of campaigning or voting for the 'wrong political party ... has been unleashed throughout the country," the statement said.
"We warn the world that if nothing is done to help the people of Zimbabwe from their predicament, we shall soon be witnessing genocide similar to that experienced in Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and other hot spots in Africa."
It urged the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the African Union and the United Nations to work towards "arresting" the deteriorating political and security situation.
The 14-nation SADC and the African Union have both come under fire for their muted response so far to the crisis.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who appealed for UN intervention on Monday when he met Ban, has grown so frustrated with the SADC that he has called for its pointman on Zimbabwe, South African President Thabo Mbeki, to be axed as a mediator.
In comments to reporters on Tuesday, Ban said: "It is unacceptable that the results of the presidential election in Zimbabwe are not being officially announced even after three weeks after the election."
Mugabe's regime insists other countries stay out of its internal affairs and has dismissed talk of genocide by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change as "lies".
Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa also defended Zimbabwe's "sovereign right" to buy arms amid the ongoing row over the Chinese ship, the An Yue Jiang, which is understood to be carrying millions of rounds of AK-47 ammunition and 1,500 rocket-propelled grenades ordered by Mugabe.
An attempt to offload the cargo in the South African port of Durban had to be abandoned last Friday when activists won a court order effectively preventing the cargo being transported overland to the Zimbabwe border.
There were signs that China -- already under fire over its supply of weaponry to Sudan for use in Darfur -- was getting ready to scrap the delivery.
"As Zimbabwe could not receive the cargo as scheduled, China Ocean Shipping Corp had to give up the Durban port and is now considering carrying back this cargo," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the Bush administration had asked Beijing "to refrain from making additional shipments and, if possible, to bring this one back."
"We don't think that under the present circumstances given the current political crisis in Zimbabwe that now is the time for anyone to be increasing the number of weapons and armaments available in that country."
A US embassy spokeswoman in Pretoria said the top US envoy for Africa, Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer was due to begin a tour of the region from Wednesday.
Meanwhile Australia, which has applied sanctions against the Mugabe regime for the last six years, said that an ongoing partial recount of votes from the presidential and simultaneous legislative polls was "nothing but a sham".
"It is now absolutely apparent that Mr Mugabe will do anything to steal this election," said Foreign Minister Stephen Smith.
The recount, which began on Saturday, was initially due to finish in midweek but the electoral commission now says it will likely continue until the weekend.