Counting underway in knife-edge Zimbabwe election

Vote counting was underway in Zimbabwe's tightly fought election Wednesday, amid high turnout and accusations of rigging by President Robert Mugabe's allies who wish to extend his 33-year rule.

The 89-year-old Mugabe is Africa's oldest leader and is running for office for the seventh and perhaps final time.

His rival Morgan Tsvangirai hopes the election will usher in a new era for the troubled southern African nation.

Organisers reported high turnout across the country for the first election since the violent polls of 2008, that led to an uneasy power-sharing government between the two men.

There were no reports of widespread violence this time round, despite the fierce rhetoric of the campaign.

Police said officers in Harare fired warning shots in the air and arrested 10 soldiers who tried to jump the queue to vote.

At many stations voters started queueing before sunrise in the winter cold hours before polls opened. The lines continued well into the evening, with many marking their ballots by candle light.

Mugabe voted before lunchtime in a Harare suburb, where he insisted the poll would reflect the will of the people.

"I am sure people will vote freely and fairly, there is no pressure being exerted on anyone," he said.

The one-time teacher came to prominence as a hero of Africa's liberation movement, guiding Zimbabwe to independence from Britain and white minority rule.

But his military-backed rule has been marked by a series of violent crackdowns, economic crises and suspect elections that have brought international sanctions and made him a pariah in the West.

On Tuesday Mugabe vowed to step down if Tsvangirai was the victor. "If you lose you must surrender," he said.

Tsvangirai, the current prime minister, said that promise should be taken "with a pinch of salt".

Tsvangirai won the first round of voting in 2008, but was forced out of the race after 200 of his supporters were killed and thousands more injured in suspected state-backed attacks.

But the 61-year-old former union boss has repeatedly voiced concerns that the election is being rigged.

Tsvangirai's party on Wednesday listed a battery of alleged irregularities.

Finance Minister Tendai Biti, a senior member of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, said the names of thousands of voters were missing from the electoral roll.

Biti, speaking after a meeting with the electoral commission, added: "They are admitting that there's still two million people who are dead on the voters' roll, but they said 'because they're dead, they can't vote'."

The MDC has handed its evidence to observers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Since no Western groups were allowed to cover the presidential and parliamentary poll, the SADC's account will be closely watched.

The African Union, which has been accused of whitewashing problems in the run up to the vote, said initial reports indicated it was "peaceful, orderly, free and fair".

In Washington, US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf also said that early signs indicated a "peaceful environment" -- but that it was too soon to say if the election had been fair.

"We've made clear to the government of Zimbabwe and the region that further reductions in our sanctions will only occur if these next elections are credible, transparent and reflect the will of the Zimbabwean people," she told reporters.

Tsvangirai cut a confident figure as he cast his own ballot, predicting his MDC would win "quite resoundingly".

"This is a very historic moment for all of us," he said. It is the time to "complete the change".

Turnout appeared to be particularly brisk in the urban areas where Tsvangirai has enjoyed his strongest support, and which he must retain to stand any chance of victory.

But some analysts cautioned against interpreting the high urban turnout as a sign Tsvangirai would sweep the election.

"This election is going to be decided in the rural areas," where two thirds of Zimbabweans live and where Mugabe enjoys strong support, said Michael Bratton, founder of polling organisation Afrobarometer.

Police warned on Wednesday that anyone trying to release unofficial results ahead of the official figures risked being arrested.

Already Sunday, Mugabe had threatened to arrest Tsvangirai if he tried to declare an early victory.

Some 6.4 million people, around half of the population, are eligible to vote. A candidate needs 50 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off.

The sharp-tongued Mugabe has focused his campaign on attacking homosexuals and on promises to widen the redistribution of wealth to poor black Zimbabweans.

As the economy recovers from a crisis that saw mass unemployment and galloping inflation, Mugabe loyalists insist their hero is "tried and tested".

Tsvangirai hopes his plans to lure back foreign investors, create a million jobs in five years and improve public services will deliver a long-awaited victory.

The final results are expected within five days.

bur-jj/ia