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Voting Ends in Zimbabwe's Controversial Election - 2002-03-11

Voting has ended in Zimbabwe's controversial presidential election, a day later than scheduled. The Harare High Court has refused to issue another order extending the voting, as requested by the main opposition party. Police shut down polling stations and dispersed hundreds of would-be voters who never got the chance to cast their ballots.

Heavily armed police officers chased voters away from polling stations in neighborhoods all around Harare. They fired tear gas and warning shots in several areas where the crowds were unwilling to leave without voting.

Most polling centers were closed at 7 p.m. local time on the dot, despite the fact that they opened four to five hours late, on the unscheduled third day of voting in Zimbabwe's presidential election.

Huge, slow-moving lines of people had been waiting outside polling stations on Saturday and Sunday. Despite that, the ruling party, ZANU-PF, says few people went to the polls on Monday. But that assertion is contradicted by reports from all over the city that in some places hundreds of people were still waiting to vote when officials shut the gates and started sealing the ballot boxes.

One man told VOA he had waited in line for three days but still was not able to cast his ballot.

He said the crowd became agitated and started shouting at the police when they tried to close the gates of the polling station. He said, "they wanted to vote."

At one polling station, several international election observers said they had prevented election officials from shutting down 45 minutes early, despite the hundreds of voters waiting outside. Police eventually dispersed the crowd, and no further voting took place.

Zimbabwean Information Minister Jonathan Moyo insists there were not many voters at the polls on Monday. He told reporters many election agents spent the day "twiddling their fingers." And he denied that the difficulty people had voting in Harare should lead to any real questions about the fairness of the poll. "We do not believe that just because there is a long queue, then there is a problem," he said.

But the main opposition presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, says he believes the government intentionally tried to keep his supporters in the cities from voting. "It is unimaginable to see people determined to exercise that democratic right and their government determined to deny them," he said.

Mr. Tsvangirai has urged his supporters to remain calm, but he says he fears the election is being rigged.

Mr. Tsvangirai poses a stiff challenge to incumbent President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980. It is the first time Mr. Mugabe has faced a serious threat to his hold on the presidency.

The opposition leader spoke after the arrests of several high-ranking members of his party, including MDC Secretary-General Welshman Ncube. It is not clear what they were arrested for, but Mr. Tsvangirai said his party will not succumb to what he called intimidation or threats.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy says police detained four U.S. diplomats in the town of Chinhoyi, about 100 kilometers southwest of Harare. A U.S. spokesman says they were stopped at a roadblock and detained at a nearby police station for about five hours before being released.

Two of the diplomats are accredited as election observers. The spokesman says he has received no satisfactory reason for the detention, which he calls a "clear violation of diplomatic norms."