Violence and intimidation mar Zimbabwe election

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Violence, intimidation and angry claims by hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters that they had been obstructed from voting marred the start of polling yesterday in Zimbabwe's presidential election, the most fiercely fought election in the country's history.

The Justice Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, said last night that voting could be extended by two days if necessary to allow everyone to vote. The polls were originally scheduled to close tonight, but there were reports across the country of people queuing all day without being able to vote, in the heaviest turnout of any Zimbabwe election. President Robert Mugabe is facing his toughest challenge in 22 years of power from Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Police fired teargas and rubber bullets, wounding 12 people, when a crowd of about 3,000, frustrated by slow voting, stormed a polling station in Harare's Kuwadzana township.

Across MDC-supporting Harare, home to 15 per cent of the country's 5.6 million registered voters, long queues at polling stations led to angry claims that the ruling Zanu PF party was trying to stop people casting their ballots.

Yesterday afternoon tens of thousands of people, many of whom had been waiting all day, had still to vote. There were also widespread reports of large numbers of people vanishing from a chaotic voters roll. MDC supporters said they had been turned away from polling stations by police. There was also news of Zanu PF supporters breaking into one station and stealing voting materials, and taking over two others.

The MDC claims that Zanu PF activists prevented hundreds of its polling agents from observing voting nationwide. Mr Tsvangirai accused Zanu PF of cheating and called for this weekend's voting to be extended by two days. Zanu PF, he added, was engaging in a "last-ditch effort to stop people from voting it out of power by ensuring that the voting process in MDC strongholds is slowed down. The intention is very, very clear but we hope people will be patient," he added.

After he had cast his vote in Harare's Highfields suburb, the state-controlled broadcaster ZBC reported Mr Mugabe as saying, that he was confident of victory but would accept any result. He also attacked Western countries that he said had already decided the ballot would only be free and fair if Mr Tsvangirai – who votes on his 50th birthday today – won.