'I'll run against Mugabe', says Tsvangirai

Zimbabwe's prime minister said he would run against Robert Mugabe in presidential elections expected next year and called for an army of peacekeepers to protect voters.

At a rally in Harare yesterday, Morgan Tsvangirai called for the peacekeepers to be brought into Zimbabwe, where politics has long been dogged by violence and fraud blamed on President Robert Mugabe's supporters.

Mugabe, 86, who has led the country since 1980, hinted last week that he would run for re-election.

Mugabe was forced into a power-sharing agreement with long-time opponent Mr Tsvangirai a year ago.

The unity government is supposed to prepare for elections in 2011, but it has been beset by disputes among the partners. No election date has been set.

"I am ready to stand for elections," Mr Tsvangirai told about 20,000 members of his Movement for Democratic Change party.

"We want a peacekeeping force to protect people during the election period," he added, saying he would ask the African Union and a regional group known as SADC to send the troops.

He also said he wanted foreign observers to help guarantee a free and fair vote.

Roy Bennett, a top Tsvangirai aide facing a weapons and insurgency trial, received a standing ovation when he arrived at yesterday's rally.

Mr Tsvangirai says the charges against Mr Bennett, which carry the death penalty, are baseless and part of efforts by Mugabe loyalists to undermine the coalition.

Leaders of Mugabe's party deny the accusations, saying it should be left to the judge to determine the merits of Mr Bennett's case.

Prosecutors were dealt a setback at a hearing in January, when the judge dismissed statements made by a key witness against Mr Bennett, who claims he was tortured.