Mugabe vows no change in regime at 83rd birthday party

AP , JOHANNESBURG

Mon, Feb 26, 2007 - Page 6

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who is facing mounting discontent and economic hardship, used his 83rd birthday party on Saturday to insist that his ruling party would remain in control.

Thousands of people, including ministers, diplomats and ruling party officials gathered at a soccer stadium in the central town of Gweru for the celebrations, which were billed at more than US$1 million.

The festivities came at the end of a week of rising tensions as authorities banned rallies across the capital, Harare, following skirmishes between police and opposition supporters last Sunday.

"There will never be a regime change," Mugabe said in a speech broadcast live on radio. "There will always be the people of Zimbabwe in control."

Mugabe says the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which is opposing the president's plans to extend his term of office by two years, is a front for former colonial power Britain.

During his speech, the Zimbabwean leader, who has been in power since independence in 1980, said sanctions imposed by the EU and Britain were to blame for the southern African country's worsening economic crisis.

This past week, the EU renewed targeted sanctions including a travel ban and asset freezes on Mugabe and more than 100 of his top associates.

"Our nation faces continued socio-economic challenges from the illegal sanctions [imposed] on us by our detractors as punishment for repossessing our land," Mugabe said in reference to his controversial program of white land seizures, which has caused agricultural production to plummet by at least 40 percent in the last six years.

Zimbabwe's economy is now at its lowest ebb. Inflation is running at some 1,600 percent, the highest rate in the world. This week, bread all but disappeared from the shelves of Harare supermarkets, residents say.

The economic crisis did not seem to have put a dampener on the birthday celebrations. Mugabe received a number of impressive gifts, including a luxury coach for his family from the Chinese ambassador and a 4m long, 50-year-old stuffed crocodile from members of the president's office.

The crocodile, captured near the western tourist resort of Lake Kariba, was meant to symbolize "maturity, distilled and accumulated wisdom and majestic authority," the minister of state for policy implementation Webster Shamu said in comments carried by the official Herald newspaper.

Mugabe told youths at Saturday's celebrations that they had to be equipped to enter a knowledge-based society.

"People need to know something now about the gadgets, something about the computer," he said.

But his ruling party, keen to clamp down on all forms of opposition, is mulling legislation that if passed, will allow officials to monitor e-mails, phone calls and letters, allegedly in the interest of national security.