Opposition claims victory in Zimbabwe, vote counting plods on

(dpa) - The counting of votes in Zimbabwe's presidential and parliamentary elections, in which President Robert Mugabe is battling to retain power, was underway Sunday with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) already claiming victory.

"We have won this election," Tendai Biti, secretary-general of the MDC said in the early hours of Sunday morning. "But they (the government) still might steal it," he told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

The MDC gave no figures to back its victory claim, which included claims that the largest faction of the party led by Morgan Tsvangirai had polled strongly in rural, Shona-speaking areas previously considered ruling Zanu-PF strongholds.

Biti also said that Mugabe's other main rival, former finance minister and independent candidate Simba Makoni who was ousted from Zanu-PF for standing against Mugabe, appeared to be "showing very strongly" in Matabeleland region, an MDC stronghold and home to the Ndebele-speaking minority.

In Matabeleland, Makoni was supported by a breakaway faction of the MDC led by Arthur Mutambara as well as several popular war veterans.

Tsvangirai's MDC faction is rushing to announce results before the official election body, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, to stave off what it fears will be attempts by the election apparatus at rigging in Mugabe's favour.

On Thursday the chiefs of Zimbabwe's security forces warned the opposition against making unilateral victory claims and vowed to swiftly deal with any "Kenya-style" protests.

Saturday's voting in synchronized presidential, assembly, senate and local council elections was mostly peaceful apart from a bomb blast at the home of a Zanu-PF parliamentary candidate in the second city Bulawayo. No one was injured in the attack.

Election observers, however, took issue with the large numbers of police in and around polling stations as intimidatory.

Mugabe had issued a last-minute decree allowing police into polling stations "to help" voters.

The Pan-African Parliament has also written to the ZEC, complaining that more than 8,450 voters had been registered on a patch of deserted land in Harare.

Some 5.9 million voters were registered to vote in the polls, seen as a vote mainly on the economic chaos wrought by Mugabe's populist policies that have resulted in six-figure inflation and widespread food, fuel and drug shortages.

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