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Vote-rigging feared as first votes are cast in Zimbabwe

Vote rigging in Saturday's election in Zimbabwe may have begun as early as last week when the 75,000 members of the country's armed forces cast their postal ballots, according to internal critics.

The claim came as Amnesty International listed a series of infringements of opposition activists' freedom yesterday, including physical threats, detentions, and denial of access to food because of their perceived political affiliations. Amnesty said opposition supporters had been forced to take down election posters and to "chew" them.

The police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena, who is an outspoken supporter of the ruling Zanu-PF party, defended the postal voting process used by the armed forces. "Postal voting is a private process," he said. "Why should it be monitored by observers? The votes will be sealed and taken to the Zimbabwe Election Commission."

But members of the military in Mutare told a South African reporter that soldiers had been ordered to write their service numbers on the backs of the ballot papers, making it simple to establish how they had voted. The reporter was also told that ballots were "sifted" by commanders and police chiefs before being forwarded to the electoral commission.

The run-up to the presidential, parliamentary and local council elections has been dominated by evidence of desperate measures by Robert Mugabe to prolong his 28-year grip on power. President Mugabe, 84, faces a challenge from the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Morgan Tsvangirai. A former Zanu-PF finance minister, Simba Makoni, is also standing, although he is promising Mr Mugabe a pension rather than retribution.

Amnesty said food had been used as an electoral weapon and cited an example of the MDC being prevented from buying 235 bags of maize from the state-owned Grain Marketing Board. The party was told that "GMB maize is not supposed to be distributed to MDC supporters".

"Although, opposition parties appear to be enjoying a greater degree of access to rural areas compared with previous elections, we continue to receive reports of intimidation, harassment and violence against perceived supporters of opposition candidates," said Amnesty's Zimbabwe researcher Simeon Mawanza.

Mr Makoni claimed yesterday that he had been prevented from placing advertisements in state media. The MDC said a helicopter it had chartered was grounded by the authorities last weekend, preventing its leader from addressing several rural rallies.

Only a small number of election observers have been admitted, none of them from the European Union or Commonwealth. Nevertheless, amid expressions of concern from those who are there, the authorities pledged that ballots cast will not be removed from polling stations to be counted centrally.

George Chiweshe, chairman of the election commission, told observers from the Southern Africa Development Community: "A section of society misconstrued what we said. The presidential election results will be counted at polling stations but collated by the chief electoral officer at the central command centre. We did not mean that all ballot boxes will be carried to the national centre." Mr Tsvangirai had threatened to boycott the election if votes were counted centrally.

Mr Chiweshe also sought to allay fears that a loophole existed regarding a second round of elections. He said: "A candidate should get a greater number of votes than those cast for all his competitors combined – 50 plus one. The law provides for a rerun after 21 days if any of the contesting candidates fail to get a majority."