Partial recount of votes in Zimbabwe election underway

( dpa ) - A controversial recount of votes cast in last month's Zimbabwean elections, in which opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai is claiming victory over incumbent President Robert Mugabe, got underway Saturday in the presence of regional observers.

The recount is of votes cast in 23 out of 210 constituencies, both for president and the lower house of parliament (House of Assembly)

A spokesperson for the state-controlled Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, Utoile said the recount had generally started on time in all areas and was proceeding smoothly, but South African radio reported delays in some areas.

Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change won the March 29 parliamentary vote but the official results of the presidential election held the same day have not yet been released.

Tsvangirai claims he is the president-elect. Mugabe's Zanu-PF party says neither Tsvangirai nor Mugabe won outright and that a runoff is required. An independent electoral observation NGO also estimated neither took more than 50 per cent, but put Tsvangirai very close.

The MDC vehemently opposed the recount, saying the presidential results should first be announced, but failed in a High Court application to block it.

In the House of Assembly election two MDC factions together took 109 seats to Zanu-PF's 97. Of the 23 seats being recounted the MDC won 21. If Zanu-PF regains nine of those it will win back parliament.

The presidential recount, on the other hand, is expected to support Zanu-PF's call for a runoff but it was unclear whether the MDC would participate.

Tsvangirai has swung between rejecting a second round and saying he would partake, if international observers were present to ensure it was free and fair.

Observers from the 14-country Southern African Development Community (SADC) were dispatched to Saturday's recount which took place amid tight security.

In Goromonzi West constituency, about 40 kilometres north-east of Harare, armed police stood guard outside the polling station and at checkpoints on all access roads. That constituency had gone to a Zanu-PF candidate.

The three-week wait for the results of the polls, in which Mugabe is seeking to extend his 28-year rule by another five, has sown anxiety in Zimbabwe and abroad.

On Friday MDC members met former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and Prime Minister Raila Odinga in Kenya to discuss how they resolved that country's election crisis.

Meanwhile, a Chinese ship carrying arms for Zimbabwe fled Durban harbour in South Africa Friday, apparently for Mozambique.

The ship lifted anchor after a Durban court ruled that its cargo of weapons and ammunition could be offloaded, but not transported across South Africa to Zimbabwe.

The cargo includes 3 million bullets for AK-47 rifles, mortar bombs and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, according to journalists who saw the shipping manifest.

Dock workers had refused to offload the cargo, citing concerns over the tensions in Zimbabwe. Opposition parties and activists had also vigorously protested its passage through South Africa.

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