BINDURA, Zimbabwe (Reuters) - Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe on Saturday denied his ZANU-PF party had launched a violent campaign to intimidate rivals in elections expected in July, which he hopes will extend his 33 years in power.
Addressing a rally to mark his 89th birthday last week, Africa’s oldest leader denied accusations by the rival Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai that ZANU-PF was playing dirty ahead of the presidential and parliamentary polls.
“We are going to win these elections, and we are going to win them peacefully,” Mugabe told the rally in Bindura, 85 km (53 miles) north of the capital Harare.
“Our rivals are running scared, ridiculously blaming us for every incident of violence in the country, pinning every death on us to get sympathy from abroad and especially from their Western supporters,” he added.
Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since its independence from Britain in 1980, has become a pariah in the West, blamed for running a once-prosperous country into the ground, human rights abuses, and violent, rigged elections.
Political analysts say ZANU-PF faces a stern challenge from the MDC in the next polls as many Zimbabweans blame Mugabe for a decade-long economic crisis which peaked in 2008 with inflation over 500 percent, food shortages and unemployment over 80 percent.
Mugabe was forced to share power with Tsvangirai’s MDC four years ago after violent and disputed elections in 2008.
One of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, Mugabe has been endorsed as ZANU-PF presidential candidate despite concerns over his age.
The veteran ruler accuses the West of plotting his downfall as punishment for his seizure, since 2000, of white-owned commercial farms to resettle landless blacks.
Although he appears spritely, there have been rumours about his health. A June 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks said Mugabe had prostate cancer that had spread to other organs. According to the cable, he was apparently urged by his physician to step down in 2008.
Mugabe made no reference to his health when he addressed thousands of ZANU-PF supporters on Saturday, focusing on party unity, defending his policies of seizing white-owned farms for blacks and forcing foreign-owned firms to sell majority stakes to locals.
“We make no apology whatsoever for our policies because they are designed to achieve wealth and total independence for us as a people,” he said to a cheering crowd in a speech in which, as usual, he also denounced Western critics.
Reporting by Nelson Banya; Editing by Jason Webb