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Thousands March in Support of Mugabe

Thousands of Zimbabwean war veterans have gathered in Harare to lead a "million man march" in support of President Robert Mugabe's bid to extend his rule despite a severe economic crisis blamed on his government. Peta Thornycroft for VOA says many of the marchers were brought to Harare by bus and train from rural areas.

Several eyewitnesses in Harare said they noticed how easy it was for President Mugabe's supporters to hold demonstrations.

One eyewitness, a long time office worker in Harare's city center, said the march would not have been possible if it had been organized by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

She said she had regularly seen police beating up civil rights activists in Harare who were marching in protest.

Friday's "million man" march, as it was dubbed by the organizers, was led by a veteran of Zimbabwe's liberation war, Jabulani Sibanda, from the country's second city Bulawayo.

Sibanda was expelled from the ruling Zanu PF for alleged misconduct several years ago.

Recently, President Mugabe's supporters within Zanu PF decided to bring him back, and they made him head of a countrywide campaign to gather support for President Mugabe's re-election bid. Presidential elections are scheduled for March, shortly after Mr. Mugabe's 84th birthday.

Government helicopters hovered overhead Friday as the marchers made their way through the long streets of Harare. Many in the crowd sang songs from the liberation war, which ended nearly 28 years ago. Police provided protection for the marchers with sharp shooters on the roofs of nearby buildings.

Eyewitnesses said most of those taking part in the march looked as if they were from rural areas. The eyewitnesses said most of the marchers were too young to have taken part in the liberation war. One marcher said he had free transportation to the city where he hoped to find household necessities unavailable in the village nearest to his home, 100 kilometers north of Harare.

Other marchers were enthusiastic supporters of Mr. Mugabe.

Next month, Zanu PF will convene and is expected to confirm President Mugabe as the party's presidential candidate.

Internal opposition to his candidacy has evaporated in recent months, but most analysts insist that Zanu PF is a divided, discontented party.

When South African president Thabo Mbeki visited Zimbabwe 10 days ago to ask President Mugabe to speed up negotiations for a new constitution and better election laws, scores of civil rights activists were arrested and beaten by police when they held a small city center demonstration.