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Mugabe demands vote recount as 'war veterans' arm for battle

Zimbabwe's ruling party has demanded a recount of votes in the country's presidential election, a move dismissed by the opposition as a tactic calculated to buy more time for Robert Mugabe as he arms his militant supporters for a "war" aimed at winning any run-off vote.

The 84-year-old President's revived "war veterans", the footsoldiers of the farm seizures he orchestrated between 2000 and 2002, invaded at least five of Zimbabwe's few remaining white-owned commercial farms yesterday.

"This is just a warm up. The real thing is coming soon," one militant was heard shouting as one property's owners were driven out and livestock and equipment taken away.

"I've got one farmer and his wife with two young children, and people banging on windows, ululating and beating drums and telling them to vacate the farm" in the northern town of Centenary, the Associated Press reported Hendrik Olivier, the head of the Commercial Farmers' Union, as saying.

The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe is understood to be printing 500 trillion Zimbabwe dollars to pay the veterans and get them ready to fight for a Mugabe victory in the run-off. "A lot of blood is going to be shed. All those cronies who lost their parliamentary seats are also urging him [Mr Mugabe] to stay on ... It's a mess," said one source in Harare.

Yesterday's editions of the pro-Mugabe Sunday Mail newspaper quoted a letter from a Zanu-PF lawyer to the country's electoral commission calling for a recount because of "errors and miscalculations in the compilation of the poll result".

But the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, which claims that its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, won an outright majority in the presidential election, said it was illogical to demand a recount since eight days after the poll, no official results from the presidential election have been released.

On Saturday, Mr Tsvangirai accused Mr Mugabe of "preparing a war on the people". His party, the MDC, is resisting a run-off. As the MDC lodged a High Court application to have the results of that vote released, sources said that two senior generals, Constantine Chiwenga, head of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, and Perence Shiri, the Air Force commander, were instrumental in Mr Mugabe's decision on Friday to come out fighting after days of speculation that he might step down. General Shiri led a crack troop unit that massacred more than 30,000 civilians to entrench Mr Mugabe in power in the early 1980s. "Chiwenga and Shiri have told Mugabe that giving up won't help because they will proceed to stage their threatened coup anyway," said a senior Zanu-PF source who cannot be named for security reasons.

It is also understood that Grace Mugabe last week urged her husband to release his grip on power and move the family to Malaysia, where the couple bought a holiday home three years ago. The President's wife, who has withdrawn more than £5m from the central bank over the past five years for her foreign shopping jaunts, could no longer stand the stress associated with Mr Mugabe's efforts to cling to power, sources said. "She fears the entire first family could be assassinated. I doubt though that her word has any weight on Mugabe because no one takes her seriously," said another Zanu-PF official.

The decision to demand a recount of the votes is regarded as a delaying tactic while Mr Mugabe gets his act together. Even the actual run-off could be postponed by up to 90 days if "Comrade Bob", as the President is known, felt he was not ready.

Mr Tsvangirai has appealed to the United Nations and to African leaders to intervene to "prevent chaos and dislocation". But with regional leaders unlikely to intervene, hopes that Zimbabwe will change course are fast dimming. The South African President, Thabo Mbeki, said at the weekend that it was "time to wait and see" what would happen in a run-off.