Zimbabwe has refused to let Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter and a South African human rights advocate visit the impoverished country for a humanitarian mission, the three said Saturday.
The former U.N. secretary general, the ex-U.S. president and rights advocate Graca Machel had planned to assess the southern African country's needs. They are members of The Elders, a group formed by former South African President Nelson Mandela to foster peace and tackle world conflicts.
Annan said no official reason had been given for the refusal, but Zimbabwe's state-run Herald newspaper reported that the group had been asked to "come at a later date" to accommodate the crop-planting season. It quoted an unnamed source as saying they were seen as antagonistic toward Zimbabwe's government.
Zimbabweans are suffering from disease and hunger while political crisis over a power-sharing government occupies its politicians. A current cholera outbreak has killed nearly 300 people in Zimbabwe, the United Nations said.
But the three were told last Friday night by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who is mediating the political crisis, that efforts to secure travel visas for the a two-day trip had failed.
"We are very disappointed that the government of Zimbabwe would not permit us to come in, would not cooperate," former U.S. President Carter said at a news conference in Johannesburg.
It was the first time the 2002 Nobel Peace laureate has been denied permission to carry out a mission in any country, he said.
Machel, a rights advocate for women and children who is married to Mandela, said she was denied a visa to visit Zimbabwe in July when she had planned to lead a women's delegation.
Government officials in Harare could not immediately be reached for comment Saturday.
The Elders had said the trip was entirely separate from regional attempts to get Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and his rivals to implement a power-sharing agreement stalled since September.
Later Saturday, Zimbabwe's main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai met the group at a hotel in Johannesburg, saying he was disappointed they could not meet under "better circumstances."
Tsvangirai accuses Mugabe--who had been in power since Zimbabwe's 1980 independence from Britain--of trying to hold onto powerful Cabinet posts.
The political impasse has left the country without leadership as its economy collapses, with deadly consequences. Lack of cash to maintain water and sewer systems, for example, has led to the cholera outbreak.
"It seems obvious to me that the leaders of the government are immune to reaching out for help for their own people," Carter said.
Zimbabweans face daily shortages of food, fuel and other basic goods. In the countryside, failed harvests mean that starving villagers compete with jackals, baboons and goats for roots and wild fruits.
As the country suffers from the world's worst inflation, health care has collapsed. Hospitals unable to afford drugs, equipment or staff salaries have been forced to shut down.
There is growing regional concern about Zimbabwe's crisis, as millions have left for neighboring countries in search of jobs and security.
"Any crisis that creates millions of refugees is regional, and everyone should be interested in resolving it," Annan said.
Annan and the group of Elders were determined to continue efforts to address the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe, and planned to meet various leaders and organizations in South Africa.
The Elders--including 12 former world leaders and prominent rights activists--have mediated in a number of other international crises, such as Sudan and Kenya. The group was launched last year to celebrate Mandela's 89th birthday.