Zimbabwe opposition party claims election rig

HARARE, Zimbabwe &

Officials released a trickle of national election results evenly split today between Zimbabwe's ruling party and the opposition, which accused President Robert Mugabe's government of rigging returns to conceal a massive loss.

Zimbabwe has collapsed under Mugabe, a one-time anti-colonial hero whose mismanagement of the economy turned the breadbasket of southern Africa into a nation dependent on international food handouts, and struggling with inflation of over 100,000 percent a year, by far the world's highest.

The economic disaster has fueled dissent among a people cowed into silence by Mugabe's strong-arm methods over 28 years in power. Zimbabweans have begun speaking openly against Mugabe, 84, seeing the election as a last hope for the country.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Changes said vote counts it saw posted at polling stations in 128 of the country's 210 parliamentary districts showed Tsvangirai taking 60 percent of the vote over 30 percent for Mugabe.

But Zimbabwe's nominally independent Electoral Commission released results for only 38 races in the lower House of Assembly, giving 19 wins to the ruling party and 19 to the opposition. It said nothing about the presidential contest.

Election observers said some initial results were known as early as 11 p.m. Saturday, some four hours after polls closed. In previous elections, partial results have been announced within hours of voting ending.

Tsvangirai narrowly lost disputed 2002 elections and the opposition said it would take to the streets in peaceful protest if this year's vote was rigged.

The Movement for Democratic Change said the opposition won 96 seats of the 128 for which it had gathered results. Parliamentary and local council balloting was held alongside the presidential vote.

The Electoral Commission acknowledged that one of Mugabe's Cabinet ministers lost his seat in a district seen as a ruling party stronghold.

The slow official reporting "only goes to raise tension among the people," Movement for Democratic Change secretary-general Tendai Biti said.

Biti said that if the vote were stolen, the opposition would mount peaceful protests &

not go to the courts.

"We have election disputes still pending from 2002" in the courts, he said. "We are not going to make that mistake again. Our courts will be the people of Zimbabwe and our brothers and sisters in Africa."

Biti cautioned against resorting to violence, which he said could spark a security or military crackdown.

"Zimbabweans are rightfully anxious," he said. "Zimbabweans are not a violent people and we hope people are not provoked into violence if official results differ from those posted at polling stations."

Britain, Germany and the EU called for faster reporting today to ease tension.

The United States urged Zimbabwe to "do the right thing" as it counts the votes. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the U.S. "strongly encourages" the country's electoral commission to honor the will of the Zimbabwean people.

"Clearly the delay is fueling speculation that something might be going on," said Noel Kututwa, chairman of the Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network, which includes 38 civic, church and other groups.

Independent monitors said Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa was one of six Cabinet ministers &

among them some leading members of Mugabe's inner circle &

to lose a parliament seat. They include Vice President Joyce Mujuru; Didymus Mutasa, minister of state for security and land, and Defense Minister Sydney Sekeramayi.

The monitors, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publish results, compiled results from those tallied and posted at voting stations across the country.

The balance of the presidential votes went to former ruling party loyalist and Finance Minister Simba Makoni, whose campaign as an independent brought splits within the ruling party over Mugabe's rule into the open.

While younger army officers are reported to be losing patience with Mugabe, security chiefs said before the election they would not accept an opposition victory. A show of force by riot police and other security forces dampened celebrations Sunday in the capital's densely populated suburb where support for the opposition is strong.

If Tsvangirai were to claim victory before the official results are announced, it would be "called a coup d'etat and we all know how coups are handled," chief presidential spokesman George Charamba was quoted as saying in the state-controlled Sunday Mail newspaper.

Businesses in Harare reported many people stayed home today, apparently to follow results. Zimbabweans shared election results among themselves, sending cell-phone text messages and e-mails that congested the country's networks.

Britain, long a sharp critic of Mugabe, had contingency plans to offer more aid to Zimbabwe if "the democratic wish of the people is respected," Prime Minister Gordon Brown's spokesman Michael Ellam told reporters in London today.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in a statement it was "vital that this election should chart a course for Zimbabwe chosen by the people of Zimbabwe."

"The international community is watching events closely, and the Prime Minister and I will be speaking today to international leaders, particularly those from Southern Africa."

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