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President Robert Mugabe claims the cholera crisis that has killed nearly 800 people in Zimbabwe is contained, and his spokesman said his much-criticized remark that there was no cholera was misunderstood, state media reported Friday.

Mugabe’s comments Thursday drew strong criticism from the United States and Britain; the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe said it showed “how out of touch he is with the reality” in Zimbabwe.

Friday’s Herald newspaper quoted Mugabe’s spokesman George Charamaba as saying Mugabe had been sarcastic and wanted to make the point that the crisis was contained.

The World Health Organization, though, said Friday that the death toll from the waterborne disease had risen to 792 and that the number of cases had increased to 16,700.

“I don’t think that the cholera outbreak is under control,” WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said.

Cholera has spread rapidly in the southern African nation because of its crumbling health care system and lack of clean water. Zimbabwe had among the best health care systems in sub-Saharan Africa before the country’s economic meltdown.

Now most hospitals have been forced to close their doors as they can no longer afford drugs, equipment or wages for their staff, and some of the sick seeking treatment are being transported by wheelbarrow. Officials are also unable to afford spare parts and chemicals for water systems.

Zimbabwe’s decline began in 2000, when Mugabe began an often violent campaign to seize white-owned farms and give them to blacks; most of the land ended up in the hands of his cronies, and production has dropped. Now, hungry Zimbabweans scrounge for corn kernels spilled from trucks carrying the harvest to market in a nation that once exported food.

On Friday, the opposition accused Mugabe of being disingenuous for his “careless and reckless” remarks about the cholera crisis.

“The epidemic is still with us and is spreading fast,” Henry Madzorera, health spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change, said in a statement.

Aid agencies have warned that the outbreak could worsen with the onset of the rainy season and the disease already has spread to Zimbabwe’s neighbors.

South African authorities have declared the cholera-hit border region with Zimbabwe a disaster area. About 664 people have been treated for the disease and at least eight people have died in South Africa.

Mugabe has ruled his country since its 1980 independence from Britain and has refused to leave office following disputed elections in March. U.S. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have called recently for the 84-year-old leader to step down.

On Friday, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband blamed Mugabe for causing “death and destruction on a grand scale” and said that cholera remains a “very significant problem” in the country.

“There is a tragedy in Zimbabwe and it’s a manmade tragedy and the man whose made it is the head of the government, and he’s immiserated his own people, he’s caused death and destruction on a grand scale,” Miliband told Associated Press Television News.

Speaking on the sidelines of a European Union summit in Brussels, Miliband said Mugabe’s “rogue government” was getting in the way of international efforts to provide humanitarian aid for the country to fight the cholera outbreak.

On Thursday, the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe told reporters at the State Department that the cholera problem is getting worse.

“The situation is truly grim,” James McGee said. “One man and his cronies — Robert Mugabe — are holding this country hostage.”

Mugabe’s aides have responded to the calls for his ousting by accusing the West of trying to use the cholera crisis as an excuse to topple the government.

A power-sharing deal worked out in September with the opposition has been deadlocked over how to divide up Cabinet posts. The political impasse has paralyzed public services, including health and education, amid a deepening economic collapse and runaway inflation.

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