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Tuesday, April 15, 2008 - Page updated at 01:21 PM

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Zimbabwe Ruling Party Prepares Runoff

Associated Press Writer

War veterans marched Friday in Zimbabwe's capital - a muscular show of support for President Robert Mugabe, whose party said he would fight to retain his 28-year grip on power in a runoff election with the opposition leader.

A week after Morgan Tsvangirai's opposition party made a strong showing at the polls, it was clear the 84-year-old Mugabe still had at his disposal the feared veterans of the bush war that helped end white minority rule, as well as the backing of the equally feared security forces.

Offices of the main opposition party were ransacked Thursday and police detained foreign journalists.

Mugabe has ruled since his guerrilla army helped bring about an independent Zimbabwe in 1980, but his popularity has been battered by an economic slide that followed the often-violent seizures of white-owned commercial farms in 2000.

With inflation in Zimbabwe raging at more than 100,000 percent, authorities introduced a new bank note denominated at 50 million Zimbabwe dollars Friday, state media said. The new note is worth $1 at the widely used black market trading rate and can buy just three loaves of bread.

While official results from the March 29 presidential election still had not been released, independent observers earlier projected a runoff, saying Tsvangirai won the most votes but not the 50 percent-plus-one majority needed for an outright victory.

The election commission announced more results Friday in races for the 60 elected Senate seats, with the opposition winning 23 to the ruling party's 20.

The opposition filed suit Friday asking the courts to force the release of the presidential results, party spokesman Nelson Chamisa said.

He said the suit called the delay in results unjustified and said it had resulted in "a lot of anxiety being created among the (opposition), the nation at large and the international community." He said a hearing was expected Saturday.

The U.S. and other Western nations also have been pressing for the results to be announced.

"The Zimbabwe election commission has continued to fail in its duties and fail the Zimbabwean people by not immediately providing the results of the presidential vote," State Department Tom Casey said. "The longer they delay in this process, the more suspicious it becomes."

An African Union team that monitored the elections found no evidence of fraud during the voting last weekend, according to the delegation's leader, former Sierra Leone president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.

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"There was no evidence in support of voting irregularities," Kabbah said upon arriving at the airport in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown.

Kabbah praised Mugabe as "a patriot," and said during a meeting Thursday the Zimbabwe leader was "relaxed" despite the reports of his setback at the polls.

That the first "official" word of a runoff came from the ruling party, pre-empting results from the ostensibly independent election commission, underlines that Mugabe's party is Zimbabwe's most powerful authority.

"We agreed to have a rerun at a date to be set" by the commission, Didymus Mutasa, a Cabinet minister who also is secretary of Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, told reporters after a five-hour meeting of the party politburo.

Diplomats said Mugabe might try to delay the runoff for three months.

Earlier, police escorted about 400 war veterans as they paraded silently through downtown Harare. The veterans, who spearheaded the often violent takeover of white farms in recent years, appeared to have been transported to town.

At a news conference, Jabulani Sibanda, head of the Zimbabwe War Veterans' Association, said ZANU-PF lost the elections because "people were pushed by hunger and illegal sanctions," echoing a theme of Mugabe's campaign.

"Under current circumstances the sprit of our people is being provoked," Sibanda said. "We will be forced to defend our sovereignty."

ZANU-PF leaders sounded a similarly combative tone. After the politburo meeting, Mutasa accused the opposition of bribing electoral officials and said his party would contest results for 16 seats in parliament's lower house - where the long-ruling party lost its majority, according to official results.

Mutasa also accused the opposition of promising to return land to white farmers.

"We are not reversing the land reform - they will get the shock of their lives," Mutasa said.

The opposition leader has not said he would reverse land reform, but has promised to make an equitable distribution of land to people who know how to farm. Mugabe claimed his land reform was to benefit poor blacks, but gave most seized farms to relatives, friends and cronies, and agricultural production has plunged.

The law requires a runoff within 21 days of the first round. But diplomats in Harare and at the United Nations said Mugabe was planning to declare a 90-day delay to give security forces time to clamp down.

"Mugabe has started a crackdown," Tendai Biti, secretary-general of the main opposition party, told The Associated Press on Thursday after hotel rooms used as offices by the opposition were ransacked by intruders. He said the attackers were either police or agents of the feared Central Intelligence Organization.

Biti said Tsvangirai was "safe."

Tsvangirai tried Thursday to reassure security chiefs who vowed a week ago not to serve anyone but Mugabe, according to a person close to the opposition leader. But an agreed meeting with seven generals was canceled when the officers said that they had been ordered not to attend and that they would be under surveillance, according to the man, wanonymityted anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.

There have been reports of rifts within the highly politicized upper echelons of Zimbabwe's security forces.

New York Times journalist Barry Bearak was among those detained Thursday by heavily armed riot police who surrounded and entered a Harare hotel frequented by foreign reporters, lawyers said. The U.S.-based National Democratic Institute said one of its staff, American Dileepan Sivapathasundaram, was detained by authorities at Harare's airport as he tried to leave the country Thursday.

The government had rejected most foreign journalists' applications to cover the elections and had barred Western election observers.

Lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa said the attorney general decided there was no case against the two Americans and a third person who was not identified. However, police decided to hold them. It was not clear whether new charges would be filed.

Casey said four Americans were detained Thursday, but two had been released and were leaving the country. He said one of the two still in custody was a reporter and had been seen by U.S. officials. The other had not been located by U.S. officials, he said.

Casey said the Americans who had been located did not appear to have been mistreated.

They were picked up "for no legitimate reason," he said, but said he could give only limited details because of privacy concerns.

The New York Times quoted Mtetwa as saying that with nighttime temperatures in the 50s, Bearaks cell was unheated and he sleeps on a concrete slab without a blanket.

Bill Keller, executive editor of The Times, called the charge that Mr. Bearak had misrepresented himself as an accredited journalist a "ludicrous assertion."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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