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New warning to Mugabe rivals

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- An election date has been announced in Zimbabwe as the country's military chief dealt another blow to the opposition -- saying only leaders who fought against white rule would receive backing.

The presidential poll will be held on March 9 and 10, President Robert Mugabe's office said on Wednesday.

Mugabe is facing growing international condemnation of his human rights records amid a collapsing economy.

But he received a boost with the statement on Wednesday from the country's defence forces commander General Vitalis Zvinavashe. Mugabe says the main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai did not fight in the liberation wars and has branded him a traitor.

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Zvinavashe's statement came as Mugabe's ZANU-PF government pushed ahead with new laws to limit election monitoring and reduce access to overseas journalists.

"We wish to make it very clear to all Zimbabwean citizens that the security organisations will only stand in support of those political leaders that will pursue Zimbabwean values, traditions and beliefs for thousands of lives lost in pursuit of Zimbabwe's hard-won independence," Zvinavashe said.

"We would therefore not accept, let alone support or salute anyone with a different agenda that threatens the very existence of our sovereignty, our country and our people," Zvinavashe said.

Tsvangirai, of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), is expected to pose the biggest challenge to Mugabe's two decades in power.

Zimbabwe's military and security units, including the police and intelligence units, are headed by veterans of the 1970s bush war against white-run Rhodesia which ultimately led to independence from Britain in 1980.

Mugabe has pledged to win the March election on a platform of redistributing white-owned farms to blacks.

The often violent seizure of white-owned farms has been accompanied by the killing of opposition supporters and intimidation of the judiciary and media.

Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party moved in the country's parliament on Wednesday to pass controversial legislation aimed at broadening the powers of state security forces to deal with opposition.

The Harare parliament was also discussing legislation aimed at tightening controls on independent monitoring of the election and restricting foreign journalists' access to the country.

The move to hurry through the controversial bills came despite a shock defeat in parliament 24 hours earlier, the first for the ZANU-PF government in two decades.

Opposition MDC politicians rejected the bill that called for restrictions on independent monitors and voter education by churches and others groups.

The bill was voted down by 36 votes to 22 with the ruling party failing to rally its MPs to the chamber to push through the vote.

The British government said on Tuesday it would press for Zimbabwe's suspension from the Commonwealth at the next leaders' summit if Mugabe's government did not tackle political violence and human rights violations.

But Mugabe's ministers said the British government's move had no backing from African nations and that it was acting in support of the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

Information Minister Jonathan Moyo said: "The British have never recognised that Zimbabwe is a sovereign country."

Heads of government from the 54-nation Commonwealth (CHOGM) are due to meet in March in Brisbane.

Mugabe has faced growing international pressure over the violent takeover of white-owned farms in Zimbabwe, but says the redistribution of farmland to landless blacks is a vital step towards redressing colonial-era injustices.


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