Troops rolled out as Zimbabweans prepare for poll

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The Independent Online

In a show of the military force supporting President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's army began deploying countrywide yesterday, two days before the most fiercely fought presidential contest in the country's history.

Organisation for the elections is shambolic. Zimbabwe's 5.6 million voters have yet to learn when the 4,500 polling stations will be open or even where they are, and the electoral roll has not been made public. The Electoral Supervisory Commission has not said how many ballot papers have been printed.

At his final pre-election press conference yesterday, the opposition contender, Morgan Tsvangirai – accused by the government of plotting to assassinate Mr Mugabe – said the electoral process in Zimbabwe had been "blatantly and outrageously distorted in favour of the ruling party".

Accusing Mr Mugabe of using "state terrorism" to steal the election, he claimed that in the past few days members of a ruling party youth militia known locally as the "Talibobs" had abducted 22 opposition polling agents.

Mr Tsvangirai said: "The violence we have experienced in this country is state terrorism against its own citizens. [Mr Mugabe] is using state agencies, state institutions that have been built specifically to terrorise the population."

But he said he would still defeat Mr Mugabe. "As we come to the final moment of what has been a very long and difficult journey towards democratic change in Zimbabwe, I wish to send a loud and clear message – the people's victory at the weekend poll is now certain."

Meanwhile, the independent media in Zimbabwe reported yesterday that the government had placed its armed forces, which number more than 70,000, on high alert and cancelled all leave in anticipation of instability after the elections. It has also reportedly withdrawn some troops from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they are helping the country's government fight a civil war.

Michael Quintana, editor of the Harare-based online African Defence Journal, told The Independent that around two-thirds of the army appeared to have been deployed. He said: "This is unprecedented. They're being spread around like pieces on a chess board."

Even the army's mechanised battalion – its most heavily armoured force, with more than 3,000 troops plus tanks, armoured vehicles and mobile rocket units – was observed leaving its barracks yesterday morning, he added.

"From my observations, the army and airforce have been rearming ahead of the election, conducting war games, and starting on Thursday, they started countrywide deployment of up to two-thirds of their forces. There have been reports of troops receiving special training in the south-eastern highlands, where tear gas canisters were being dropped from the air and soldiers were given lessons in crowd control."

Fears of a military coup in the event of an opposition victory have been high since senior military officers said they would not stand by and see the ruling party defeated.

On Tuesday, a senior figure in the ruling Zanu-PF and a close associate of Mr Mugabe, Didymus Mutasa, said on South African television that there would be mayhem in the entire southern Africa region if Zimbabweans voted Mr Tsvangirai into power. He said: "Under these circumstances, if there were to be a coup, we would support it very definitely."

Brian Raftopoulos, a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, told the Financial Gazette that there was a real chance the country could slide into chaos. "Whoever wins, there is going to be problems after this election. It is going to be very dangerous," he said.