- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 12, 2002

HARARE, Zimbabwe Police and vigilantes loyal to President Robert Mugabe chased thousands of voters away from polling stations yesterday at the close of a presidential election marred by charges of fraud and intimidation.

The action came as the Zimbabwe High Court rejected an opposition demand that polling be extended for a fourth day.

Police also detained four American diplomats, who were attempting to monitor the election, for five hours.

In addition, they arrested a high-ranking official of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the opposition party trying to unseat Mr. Mugabe.

Yesterday marked the end of a chaotic three days of voting that marked the most serious challenge ever to Mr. Mugabe's 22-year presidency.

Throughout the campaign, government supporters targeted MDC candidate Morgan Tsvangirai and his supporters.

The election was to have ended Sunday night, but the High Court extended it for a day after hundreds of thousands of voters had yet to cast ballots.

Many had waited in line for more than 48 hours since polls opened on Friday.

"They chased us away," said one angry voter who refused to give his name because the police who closed the poll still lingered nearby.

"I'm very angry because it is my right to vote. I want to vote."

The number of polling stations in the capital of Harare, an opposition stronghold, had been slashed in what opposition leaders said was a blatant attempt to disenfranchise opposition voters.

Despite the court order keeping polls open yesterday, officials delayed the opening until midday and then closed them promptly at 7 p.m.

At some polls, as many as a thousand voters were still waiting to cast their votes when police shut the stations down.

Overall, 2.7 million of the nation's 5.6 million registered voters, or 48 percent, cast ballots by Sunday night, the government said. The opposition said the overall turnout figures were suspect and intended to guarantee Mr. Mugabe's re-election.

Police used tear gas and batons to drive away voters at at least one polling station. Shots were reportedly fired at another.

But in most places crowds dispersed without incident, in some cases chanting the MDC slogan: "Change, Change, Change," as they left.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Tsvangirai called on supporters to wait peacefully for an announcement of the results, which are expected late today or tomorrow.

"Let us first wait peacefully for your votes to be cast and counted," he said. "As you wait for the results, do not succumb to their provocative traps. I know they are trying very hard to provoke you."

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