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Carter, Annan unable to visit to Zimbabwe

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  • NEW: Zimbabwe says delegation didn't consult regarding timing, purpose of visit
  • The group, including Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter, says travel was made impossible
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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (CNN) -- A group including former U.N. chief Kofi Annan and former U.S. President Carter postponed a visit to Zimbabwe meant to highlight the country's humanitarian crisis after the government refused to cooperate, Annan said.

Annan said the delegation, which had been set to arrive in Zimbabwe this weekend, needed "no red carpet treatment" but only the government's "permission to help the poor and the desperate."

"However the refusal of the Zimbabwean government to facilitate our visit in any way has made it impossible for us to travel at this time," Annan said.

The government denied that it barred the officials from entering, however, saying it instead asked them to postpone their visit.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi said Saturday that Annan "misrepresented" the facts.

He said the postponement was necessary because Annan had not consulted with the Zimbabwean government regarding the timing and purpose of his visit.

The trio -- which also included rights activist Graca Machel, wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela -- wanted to find ways to ease the plight of Zimbabweans, nearly half of whom are in need of emergency food aid. In addition, a cholera epidemic sweeping the country has claimed several lives and spread to neighboring South Africa.

But the state-owned daily newspaper, The Herald, said Thursday that the three -- who belong to a group of senior statesmen known as the Elders -- were trying to boost the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, in power-sharing talks with President Robert Mugabe.

"The visit has been deemed a partisan mission by a group of people with partisan interests," The Herald quoted an unnamed government source as saying.

"The Elders wrote to [Mugabe's] government on the intended visit, but they have been advised that while it appreciates the humanitarian concern by the group, it was important for them to plan their visit on a date that is convenient and agreed to by both sides."

When Annan announced the visit, he said it was purely humanitarian and would not touch on the negotiations that continue to drag on to form a unity government in Zimbabwe.

Mugabe signed a power-sharing deal with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in September, but it is yet to take effect.

The Movement for Democratic Change accuses Mugabe of grabbing all key ministries such as home affairs, information, local government, foreign affairs and defense. It said it wants an "equitable" distribution.

Mumbengegwi said Saturday that Mugabe's government is aware of the humanitarian challenges facing Zimbabwe and is determined to address them.

"The government takes strong exception ... to any suggestions that there are those that care more about the welfare of our people than we do," he said.

Asked whether he would allow Annan's team to visit in the future, Mumbengegwi said, "If we come up with a mutually agreed date. We told them that."

Annan, in announcing the postponement Saturday, said the group wanted to use its influence to get international aid to the millions of people in Zimbabwe in need of help.

Machel said she was "extremely disappointed."

"We want to talk to the people and hear their stories directly. We want people to know that we care and that we will do all we can to help them. People are dying from hunger every day in Zimbabwe, and hospitals are unable to treat the sick. With schools struggling to stay open, children are missing out on an education. One in four children has lost one or both parents. The government's attitude to our visit is deeply regrettable."

Carter noted that he supported Zimbabwe's liberation struggle, led by Mugabe, while he was the U.S. president.

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"I am partisan. I make no apology for that. I supported Zimbabwe's liberation struggle, and I oppose suffering and misery. But I am very sorry that we are unable to visit Zimbabwe. We will continue with our plans to learn as much as we can while we are here in the region, where millions of Zimbabweans inside and outside the country face a daily struggle for survival."

Annan and Carter said they would remain in South Africa to monitor the situation in Zimbabwe.

CNN's Nkepile Mabuse contributed to this report.

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