Zimbabwe polls open amid further vote-rigging

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The Independent Online

Voting started today, apparently peacefully, in Zimbabwe's presidential elections with long queues snaking around polling stations in the capital, Harare.

Voters at one station, where the queue was more than one mile long, became restless by the slow pace of voting and several voters tried to surge the polling station but were pushed back by the police. The queues were far longer than during parliamentary elections in June 2000 which Robert Mugabe's party narrowly won.

In first reports from rural areas where political violence has been especially rife, officials said voting was light.

In what appeared to be a show of government force, witnesses in Harare reported unusually heavy movements of soldiers and military vehicles, including armoured cars around the capital.

Mr Mugabe ended his campaign to be re-elected as the president of Zimbabwe yesterday with a strong personal attack on Tony Blair.

On the eve of the most bitterly contested election since independence from Britain, he told a crowd of 15,000 that the Prime Minister was "an arrogant little fellow" and predicted that voters would give him and his allies in Zimbabwe "a political burial" at the polls.

Amid fresh claims of vote-rigging, Mr Mugabe scorned opinion polls predicting his defeat. "There will be a resounding victory when the results are announced on Monday," he said.

But the vote-rigging and intimidation showed no signs of letting up in the 24 hours before the poll, which will close tomorrow evening.

Forty polling agents for the opposition have been arrested, electoral rules favourable to the government have been re-imposed – despite being deemed unconstitutional by the courts – and a shambolic voters' roll was found to place up to half of the electorate outside their districts.

About 5.6 million voters are registered, but the number of polling stations has been halved in urban areas, which support the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and increased in rural areas where the ruling Zanu-PF is supported. Tens of thousands will be unable to vote.

Zimbabwe's army has been put on high alert for the election, the Information Minister, Jonathan Moyo, said. "How can you not have your army on high alert when [Tony] Blair is making the kind of noise that he is making," he said.

The MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, 49 – the only challenger to Mr Mugabe for the presidency – held a rally among workers in an industrial area of Harare. He accused the President of destroying his people, and urged people to vote, despite "massive intimidation".