President Robert Mugabe has announced presidential elections will be held in Zimbabwe on March 9 and 10. He made the announcement Wednesday night. His main opponent will be Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change.
Political analysts say the challenge from Mr. Tsvangirai is the strongest the 77-year-old president has faced in the 21 years he has been in power.
Mr. Mugabe was appointed executive prime minister under a ceremonial president when Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, gained independence from Britain in April 1980, after a bush war against the white-dominated government.
Mr. Mugabe became executive president in 1987 when the post of prime minister was abolished.
Human and political rights groups say they are extremely worried by the increasing political violence and lawlessness throughout Zimbabwe in the last 18 months.
Among the chief concerns voiced by activists are the invasions and seizures of mostly white-owned commercial farms. At least a dozen farmers and workers have been killed in the ensuing violence and 70,000 workers have been made destitute. The government ignored a Supreme Court ruling to stop the seizures and invasions.
In the run-up to parliamentary elections last year, narrowly won by Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, at least 40 people were killed, almost all of them opposition supporters.
A Zimbabwe-based coalition of human rights organizations, the Human Rights Forum, says that another 45 people have been killed in the past year.
The government blames the MDC for the violence, calling the party a "terrorist organization" and is forcing a law through parliament that provides for extremely tough measures, including the death penalty, for anti-government acts.
Critics say the law will severely limit individual and political freedom.
Meanwhile a joint statement issued Wednesday by the army and police says they will not support any attempt to change what they call "the gains of the revolution of 1980" and will not support what they term "anyone with a different agenda that threatens the sovereignty of the country."
The police and army statement called on everyone in Zimbabwe to campaign peacefully in the presidential elections.