/ 18 April 2008

Mugabe set to come out fighting

Zimbabwe’s beleaguered President Robert Mugabe was set on Friday to make his first keynote speech since the country’s disputed polls at celebrations to mark the 28th anniversary of the country’s independence.

Mugabe was scheduled to be the main speaker at a rally at the Gwanzura Stadium in Highfield, a suburb of Harare that was once one of the hotbeds of opposition to the erstwhile whites-only regime of Ian Smith.

The 84-year-old president, still regarded as a hero in many parts of Africa for his leading role in the 1970s liberation war, is facing the biggest threat to his grip on power, which began with independence on April 18 1980.

His ruling party lost control of Parliament in elections on March 29 and, even though the results have yet to be announced, his camp has already acknowledged he failed to win a majority over opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in a simultaneous presidential election.

While Mugabe has made few public comments since the elections, he told a group of youngsters on Thursday that it was vital to defend the country against British ”imperialism”.

”We should not let our children down by dropping our guard against imperialism, British imperialism, which is surreptitiously and clandestinely weaving its way through our society trying to divide us,” he told hundreds of children at an eve-of-independence party in the capital, Harare.

Mugabe was expected to expand on his theme at the Independence Day celebrations, which he has previously used as an opportunity to paint Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) as puppets of the British.

Tsvangirai was set to be absent from the anniversary celebrations, having been accused by Mugabe’s government of ”treason” after he allegedly courted Britain to intervene militarily in its former colony.

The correspondence, published in the state-run Herald newspaper, was dismissed by the British embassy in Harare as a hoax.

In a press conference in Johannesburg on Thursday, Tsvangirai said the country known as Rhodesia during British rule was facing its darkest days since independence.

”This is the saddest Independence Day since our liberation from colonial rule,” said Tsvangirai in an address to reporters in which he also accused Mugabe’s followers of embarking on a campaign of violence and intimidation against supporters of the MDC.

In an Independence Day message, the United States ambassador to Zimbabwe also charged that MDC supporters had been murdered, abducted and forced from their homes in a spate of violence in rural areas since last month’s elections.

”Sadly, as Zimbabwe celebrates its 28th birthday, many Zimbabweans are unable to celebrate. What should be a proud and joyful day for Zimbabweans is overshadowed by uncertainty and fear,” ambassador James McGee said.

International pressure for the release of the poll results has been steadily growing with the South African Cabinet calling on Thursday for the outcome to be declared as soon as possible.

Frustrated at South African President Thabo Mbeki’s refusal to criticise Mugabe publicly, Tsvangirai has called for Mbeki to be ”relieved of his duties” as a mediator in Zimbabwe.

US President George Bush has also criticised the softly-softly approach of some African leaders.

”I appreciate those in the region who have spoken out on this issue — appreciate the fact that some in the region have spoken out against violence. More leaders in the region need to speak out,” Bush said after talks with Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Thursday. — Sapa-AFP