Voting has begun peacefully in a special parliamentary election in Zimbabwe in which the ruling ZANU-P-F party is being challenged by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The result is seen as a crucial indicator of President Robert Mugabe's chances in next year's Zimbabwe presidential poll.

The town of Bindura, 80 kilometers northwest of Harare, the capital, is in one of the main areas on which Mr. Mugabe depends for support. The election is being held to fill the seat held by Border Gezi, a government minister and one of Mr. Mugabe's most militant supporters, who was killed in a road accident.

Armed police have set up roadblocks on all approaches to the town and are searching vehicles.

Long lines formed outside polling stations throughout the mixed farming and mining community on the opening day of the two day poll.

Campaigning has been marred by widespread violence.

The head of the human rights watchdog Amani Trust, Tony Reeler, says the scale of the violence has been as bad as the run-up to last year's national elections, narrowly won by the ruling party with 61 elected seats to 57 by the MDC.

No one was killed during campaigning, but scores of people, most of them supporters of the opposition party, were injured.

Last year the brother of the opposition candidate in the Bindura election, Elliott Pfebve, was beaten to death and the MDC alleges he was mistaken for Mr. Pfebve. No one has been arrested for the murder.

In one of the most serious incidents during campaigning for this weekend's voting, ruling party youths ambushed a motorcade taking MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai to a political rally. Several shots were fired and at least 15 people were severely injured.

Political analysts say the Bindura result, in which 56,000 people are eligible to vote, will be a pointer to how the voting goes in presidential elections next March.

Mr. Mugabe is being challenged by Mr. Tsvangirai at a time when Zimbabwe is in its worst economic and political crisis since independence from Britain 21 years ago.

Bindura is one of the richest commercial farming areas in the country. Most of the farms have been listed for seizure without compensation for resettlement of poor people, while many have been the targets of invasions by militant groups who support Mr. Mugabe.

In the ensuing violence thousands of farm workers have been beaten up and many farm owners have been forced to flee.