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Zimbabwe army on alert for crucial election

Zimbabwe's security forces went on full alert on Friday to quash violence during the most crucial election since independence, with President Robert Mugabe facing the biggest challenge of his 28-year rule.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe greets supporters after arriving for his final election rally at Highfields in Harare March 28, 2008. (REUTERS/Howard Burditt)

In one of his last rallies before Saturday's poll, Mugabe struck a familiar theme, mocking the opposition MDC and attacking former colonial power Britain.

"This is a vote against the British. The fight is not against the MDC ... the MDC is just a puppet, a mouthpiece of the British," he told 6,000 people on the outskirts of Harare.

Mugabe blames sanctions by Britain and other Western nations for the collapse of the economy in his once-prosperous nation, now suffering the world's highest inflation, at 100,000 percent, a virtually worthless currency, and food and fuel shortages.

Opponents blame his policies for ruining Zimbabwe.

Army and police chiefs say they will not accept an opposition victory, stoking accusations that Mugabe will use his incumbent power to rig the election.

Police chief Augustine Chihuri said on Friday security and defence forces had been put on full alert and would not allow declarations of victory before official results were announced -- expected to take several days.

"May we remind everyone that those who think and do evil must fear, for the defence and security forces are up to the task in thwarting all threats to national security," he told a news conference, flanked by army and security chiefs.


Mugabe faces his most formidable challenge in Saturday's presidential, parliamentary and council elections, with a two- pronged assault from ruling party defector Simba Makoni and Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the biggest MDC faction.

Both hope to exploit widespread misery caused by an catastrophic economic crisis they blame on the veteran leader, who took power at independence in 1980 after leading a guerrilla war against white rule.

If no candidate wins more than 51 percent of the vote on Saturday, the election will go into a second round, when the two opposition parties would likely unite. Analysts say Mugabe will do his utmost, including rigging, to avoid this happening.

Analysts would also expect a violent crackdown against MDC supporters in the three-week hiatus between the two votes.

Tsvangirai, widely seen as the strongest challenger to Mugabe, said in an interview on Friday that he would invite moderate members of Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party into a national unity government if he wins the election.

"There has to be consultation with the leadership of the reform elements, not the rabid elements, those who want to see the government moving forward," he told the Financial Times.

Tsvangirai, like most observers, downplayed the possibility of Kenya-style bloodshed if Mugabe rigged victory.

"I am not calling for a demonstration," he said.

Tsvangirai wound up his campaign with a rally at Domboshava, a semi-rural area 30 kilometres north of Harare, telling a crowd of about 2,000 people that security forces who served under Mugabe would not face retribution if he wins the election.

Tsvangirai mocked Mugabe for blaming Western sanctions, which include travel bans on ZANU-PF leaders, for Zimbabwe's crisis.

"If someone says 'Mugabe and your wife, you've stolen too much money to go and shop at Harrods in England... are those sanctions?'," he asked.

Tsvangirai and Makoni accuse Mugabe of planning to rig the vote. "We believe there is a very well thought-out, sophisticated and premeditated plan to steal this election from us," Makoni said.

Most international election observers have been banned from Zimbabwe, except for a team from the regional SADC grouping, which critics accuse of taking too soft a line with Mugabe.

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