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MDC pre-empts ZEC, claims 'historic' victory

DECLARED: Biti claimed MDC had won election
DECLARED: Biti claimed MDC had won election

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ZIMBABWE’S opposition claimed victory on Sunday based on early results from an election in which it is trying to unseat President Robert Mugabe after 28 years in power.

"It's a historic moment for all of us. We have won this election, we have won this election," Tendai Biti, secretary general of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), told reporters, diplomats and observers at a briefing.

The opposition has accused Mugabe of employing election-rigging tactics to stay in power despite Zimbabwe's economic woes and African observers say they detected fraud in Saturday's ballot.

Biti said his party's election agents had reported that early results posted at polling stations showed MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai was projected to win 66 percent of the vote in the capital Harare, an opposition stronghold.

He said Tsvangirai had made significant inroads in Mugabe's rural strongholds by leading in the southern province of Masvingo and Mashonaland Central Province, north of Harare, where the MDC has not won a parliamentary seat since 2000.

Tsvangirai's winning trend had also extended to Mugabe's home province of Mashonaland West, where the MDC had taken a rural parliamentary seat, said Biti.

He said that in Zimbabwe's second city of Bulawayo, another opposition power base, Tsvangirai had a slight edge over former Finance Minister Simba Makoni -- also standing against Mugabe.

But Makoni was leading in Zimbabwe's south-western Matabeleland South Province with 45 percent of the vote.

"This is just a sample of what we are getting from every province. In our view we cannot possibly see a (reverse) of this trend," said Biti, adding the MDC would announce more results at 0800 GMT.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission said it would start to announce official results later on Sunday.

Voting slips were being counted at the 9,000 polling booths where ballots were cast on Saturday, not only for a president of the troubled southern African nation but members of a 210-strong parliament, the senate as well as councillors.

But even before the polls closed on Saturday, Mugabe's main challenger and foreign observers had cast grave doubt about the validity of the ballot, alleging the electoral roll had been stuffed with phantom voters.

With the West having accused 84-year-old Mugabe of rigging the last presidential election in 2002, monitors from European Union countries and the United States were all excluded this time as were nearly all foreign media.

As he cast his ballot on Saturday, Tsvangirai said he expected to win but claimed his party had uncovered evidence of widespread vote-rigging, including the names of a million "ghost" voters registered in a northern region.

"Victory is assured in spite of the regime's attempt to subvert the will of the people," Tsvangirai, who was badly beaten up by members of Mugabe's security forces last year, told reporters.

Similar accusations came from a pan-African team of monitors, which complained to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission that 8,450 voters had been registered on a patch of deserted land in northern Harare.

"Despite the fact that the area is empty, voters were registered using addresses of the empty stands," stated the letter, a copy of which was shown to AFP by the observers on condition of anonymity.

Mugabe shrugged off any suggestion of vote-rigging, warning the MDC to respect any announcement on the result.

"We don't rig elections. I cannot sleep with my conscience if I have rigged," he said as he cast his ballot in Harare.

The election comes at a time when Zimbabwe is grappling with the impact of the world's highest rate of inflation -- officially put at 100,580.2 percent -- and an unemployment level which has breached the 80 percent mark.

Once seen as the region's breadbasket, the country is now suffering from previously unheard of shortages of even the most basic foodstuffs such as cooking oil and bread.

The president has blamed the country's economic woes on the European Union and the United States, which imposed sanctions on his inner circle after he was accused of rigging his 2002 re-election. He has portrayed the election as a chance to stand up against the West and in particular Britain.

Tsvangirai has urged his followers to refrain from violence while also warning that the government would be unable to contain an "overwhelming groundswell of popular feeling" if he is not declared the winner. - Reuters/AFP/Staff Reporter

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