HARARE - President Robert Mugabe's government backpedaled Friday on his claim that Zimbabwe had defeated cholera, after the remarks sparked an international outcry including comparisons to Hitler.
In a nationally broadcast speech, Mugabe claimed Thursday that "there is no cholera," even as the United Nations announced the death toll was nearing 800 while more than 16,000 people had caught the deadly but treatable disease.
"I am happy to say our doctors have been assisted by others, and WHO (the World Health Organization) and they have now arrested cholera," Mugabe said.
His spokesman George Charamba said in the state newspaper The Herald that the president had spoken with "sarcasm," and accused Western media of distorting his speech.
The remarks drew swift condemnation from around the world, with one South African Anglican bishop likening Mugabe to Hitler.
"Mugabe must be viewed as the 21st century Hitler because of the deaths and suffering of Zimbabweans under his rule," Bishop Joe Seoka said in The Times newspaper, calling for the 84-year-old to face war crimes charges.
Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said that "either Mr Mugabe is mischievous or genuinely out of touch with reality."
"Instead of conveying a message of condolences, Mr Mugabe was busy politicking," spokesman Nelson Chamisa told AFP.
The cholera epidemic is only the latest grim symptom of Zimbabwe's collapse.
The economy has crumbled under the world's highest inflation rate, last estimated in July at 231 million percent but now believed to be much higher.
A new 500 million dollar note, worth 10 US dollars (7.50 euros), was introduced Friday. The central bank cannot print money fast enough to keep pace with prices that rise several times a day.
Due to currency shortages, cash can only be withdrawn once a week from banks, and then people are allowed to take only 500 million dollars, which is not enough to see them through the day.
Hospitals have no drugs, no equipment and no staff left to treat the cholera epidemic, which has spread as sewage and water lines have broken down, contaminating the drinking supply.
A political stalemate between Mugabe and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai has deepened the crisis after disputed elections earlier this year.
The two signed a power-sharing deal three months ago but have so far failed to agree on how to form a unity government.
The United States called Thursday for South Africa to close its border with Zimbabwe to cut off deliveries to the country.
"This is a landlocked country. And its formal and informal economies would suffer. Within a week, it would bring the economy on its knees," a senior US official said in Washington on condition of anonymity.
Britain's Africa minister Mark Malloch-Brown also denounced Mugabe's remarks, saying the veteran leader's government had failed to deliver aid to his people.
"Confronted with that failure of his government the best he can claim is what cholera? My question to Mr Mugabe is where are you? Are you really in Zimbabwe?" Malloch-Brown said during a visit to South Africa on Thursday.
France's foreign ministry also rejected Mugabe's statement, saying Zimbabwe's people are in desperate need of international aid.
"For the sake of the people, it is crucial that international aid be delivered quickly to Zimbabwe," deputy spokesman Frederic Desagneaux said.