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Heavy Turnout as Zimbabwe Election Begins - 2002-03-09

Voters have turned out in force in Zimbabwe to cast ballots in the country's fiercely-contested presidential election, pitting opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai against President Robert Mugabe.

Mr. Tsvangirai, the 50-year-old leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, poses the stiffest political challenge Mr. Mugabe has ever faced. The president, who is 78, has ruled Zimbabwe ever since the southern African nation gained its independence from Britain 22 years ago.

Observers say the early turnout Saturday was heavy. Voters stood waiting in lines outside many polling places, long before polls opened at 7:00 a.m.local time. Reports say the line stretched for two kilometers outside one polling station in Harare.

The VOA correspondent in Harare says she witnessed several incidents of attempted intimidation of voters by members of Mr. Mugabe's ruling ZANU PF party.

President Robert Mugabe and his wife vote, Saturday Otherwise, the first hours of the election appeared to pass peacefully. One report from Reuters, says the home of a white farmer in central Zimbabwe was set afire Friday night by youths believed to militant members of Mr. Mugabe's ruling ZANU PF party.

The two main candidates finished campaigning on Friday. Mr. Tsvangirai called for a heavy turnout by his supporters. Mr. Mugabe, speaking to thousands of people in the town of Bindura, predicted he would win.

Voting will continue through Sunday.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher Friday condemned Mr. Mugabe's election tactics, saying the Harare government has continued a blatant campaign of violence, intimidation and manipulation of the electoral process.

Senior U.S. officials say the United States is ready to impose financial sanctions on Mr. Mugabe and his associates if it is determined that the outcome of the vote was altered by election fraud.

Over the past two years, more than 150 people have been reported killed in political violence in Zimbabwe, most of which has been linked to ruling party militants.