Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF party says President Robert Mugabe plans to remain in office for the next four years and postpone the scheduled March 2008 presidential election. Peta Thornycroft reports for VOA from Harare that one of President Mugabe's closest aides says the 82-year-old leader would stay in power until 2010 when presidential and parliamentary elections would be held simultaneously.

Nathan Shamuyarira is one of Mr. Mugabe's closest aides and a founding member of the ruling ZANU-PF. During a symposium Saturday in eastern Zimbabwe, he said the ruling party wants to merge the presidential and parliamentary elections.

Shamuyarira said the country can not afford to have elections every two years.

Mr. Mugabe, who has been in power for 26 years, has served more than half of his present term. The next parliamentary elections, held every five years, are due in March 2010.

In order to merge the presidential and parliamentary elections, Shamuyarira said the constitution would have to be amended, the 18th time since independence from Britain in 1980.

President Mugabe has never categorically said when he would retire, but since the last, and disputed, presidential election in 2002 he has said he would retire soon.

Opposition politicians say they are horrified to hear that ZANU-PF is planning to extend Mr. Mugabe's rule, saying he needs to leave office now because the country's economic situation is causing untold suffering.

A leader of one faction of the divided opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Arthur Mutambara, said he believes too many Zimbabweans will die before Mr. Mugabe planned to leave office. He said Mr. Mugabe and his ZANU-PF had caused poverty, suffering, and inflicted repression on the population and a combined election should be held immediately.

A spokesman for the Morgan Tsvangirai-led opposition faction, Nelson Chamisa, said it is preposterous that Mr. Mugabe would extend his term of office. He said people would be mobilized to resist the move.

Independent legislator Jonathan Moyo was information minister for five years in the past ZANU-PF government, until he quit last year. He said President Mugabe is using the pretext of combining the elections to extend his stay in power because he fears being indicted by the International Court of Justice for crimes against humanity.

Zimbabwe is in its worst economic crisis, with annual inflation rate of 1,200 percent and the International Monetary Fund predicting it will rise to 4,000 percent next year.

Mr. Mugabe was in Egypt where on Sunday he praised the police for beating up trade unionists they arrested at a September 13 anti-poverty protest in Harrare.