Zimbabwe's long-serving president, Robert Mugabe, has told his ruling party faithful he is not going to step down as their leader.

A pamphlet urging members of ZANU-PF to discuss the question of a successor to Mr. Mugabe was quietly being making the rounds at the ruling party's annual congress.

But any opportunity to discuss the matter was banned by Vice President Joseph Msika, who said the matter should not be discussed when Mr. Mugabe was still around. He castigated anyone who sought to raise the issue as "sell-outs."

Mr. Mugabe has been at the helm of ZANU-PF for more than 30 years and leader of Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980.

He told the party conference he had a mandate from the people, which he would continue to serve.

Mr. Mugabe, who will be 80 in February, and who looked vigorous and alert at the conference, said he would step down when he could no longer perform his duties adequately.

South African President Thabo Mbeki has repeatedly told world leaders and senior western diplomats that Mr. Mugabe's exit from the political stage was imminent.

His statements had fueled speculation both inside Zimbabwe and in the region that Mr. Mugabe would use the party congress to at least make clear that he was making plans to step down, and would anoint a successor.

Mr. Mugabe won a further six-year term as Zimbabwe's president at elections in March 2002. His rival, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, has challenged the results in the High Court, saying the poll was rigged.

Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth after its election observer group said the election was neither free nor fair. South Africa's poll monitors said the election was legitimate and credible.

Under the Zimbabwe constitution, a fresh election has to be held within 90 days of the president's death or retirement.

Mr. Mbeki and the presidents of Nigeria and Malawi, and several local church leaders, who have tried and failed to bring ZANU-PF to the negotiating table with the opposition hoped he would take the first step to end his control of Zimbabwe by making way for a new leader of the ruling party at the congress.