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Embattled Zimbabwe faces prospect of stronger sanctions after widely criticized election

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) _ Zimbabwe's government faced the prospect of stronger international sanctions Thursday following the re-election of President Robert Mugabe in a vote condemned by the international community and election observers as deeply flawed.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who had posed the most significant challenge to Mugabe's 22 years of autocratic rule, promptly rejected the results. ``It is the biggest electoral fraud I have ever witnessed in my life,'' he said Wednesday.

The election, widely criticized as being tainted by violence and intimidation, prompted the United States and Britain to threaten increased sanctions against Mugabe and his allies. Disapproval from African nations was muted, however, and South African observers said the vote should be considered legitimate.

In London, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Mugabe's party had conducted ``a systematic campaign of violence and intimidation designed to achieve one outcome, power at all costs.''

President Bush said the United States is consulting with other nations to decide how ``to deal with this flawed election.'' Secretary of State Colin Powell said ``profound irregularities'' had thwarted the will of the people.

``Mugabe can claim victory but not democratic legitimacy,'' Powell said in a statement.

Government officials have repeatedly denied irregularities in the election. According to the government, Mugabe won a new six-year term with about 56 percent of the vote over Tsvangirai's 42 percent. Of about 5.6 million registered voters, about 3.1 million cast ballots, the government said.

Mugabe, 78, a former freedom fighter who has led this southern Africa nation since its independence from white rule, was once hailed as a model of African statesmanship. But for the past two years he has resorted to violence to cement his hold on power, encouraging ruling party militants in their sweep against supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

The vote was likely to bring further trouble to Zimbabwe's already tattered economy, and some worried it could have repercussions for the entire region.

Prior to the election, the European Union imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions against Mugabe's government after he refused to let its election observers work freely. The United States imposed travel sanctions last month, making it illegal for Mugabe, his family or top Zimbabwean officials to legally enter the United States.

Ways of tightening these restrictions were being investigated. But general trade sanctions that would affect Zimbabwe's citizens were not considered a good way of instigating political change, said Walter Kansteiner, the U.S. assistant secretary for African Affairs. He described the failed elections as a tragedy.

``Zimbabwe and the region cannot return to business as usual,'' he said. ``Zimbabwe's rapidly shrinking economy will continue to have far-reaching effects.''

Zimbabwe only accounts for 3 percent of the economic output of the Southern African Development Community, a regional trading bloc of 14 nations, while neighboring South Africa accounts for 72 percent.

However instability in Zimbabwe has raised fears for the region, while the reluctance of southern African leaders to criticize their longtime ally Mugabe has raised questions about their commitment to democracy.

Independent observer missions from Norway, southern Africa and Zimbabwe itself described a a complex tapestry of intimidation, unfair laws and chaotic voting procedures that tipped the poll in Mugabe's favor.

Ruling party militants and security forces were part of a campaign of intense attacks against the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, observers said. Many opposition voters were frightened from the polls during the weekend vote.

The opposition was also hamstrung by recently passed security laws police used to cancel many of its campaign events while allowing the government to campaign freely, observers said.

Additionally, under strict media laws, Tsvangirai had no access to state television and radio _ the main source of news for most Zimbabweans _ which gave strongly biased coverage.
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