Mugabe tells Blair to 'go to hell'

President Robert Mugabe has told Tony Blair to "go to hell" after accusing the British Prime Minister of endorsing the opposition in Zimbabwe's forthcoming elections.

Mugabe, who faces the sternest test of his 22 years in power in next weekend's polls, told a ruling Zanu-PF party rally that the British Government had displayed double standards by suggesting a victory by his party could be neither free nor fair.

"Only yesterday Blair stood in Parliament unashamedly to say the British Government should stay ready to recognise and support the victory of MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) ... and not Zanu-PF," Mugabe told yesterday's rally, in remarks reported today in the government-leaning Herald newspaper.

"That comes from a man who professes to know democracy and international law."

With Mr Blair set to press for Zimbabwe's suspension from the Commonwealth at the organisation's summit in Australia this weekend,

Mugabe told the rally: "But of course we say go to hell. Go to hell, our people have decided and that is what matters to us.

"It's not the right or responsibility of the British to decide on our elections. We don't decide on their own and why should they poke their pink noses in our business?

"What's this latter day Blair imperialism? We will defeat Blair on March 9 and 10."

Flying to the summit - in Coolum, near Brisbane, Australia - Mr Blair predicted a close-fought battle in the elections on March 9/10.

He said opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai could yet defeat Mugabe.

And he urged "strong and unequivocal" support from the international community for the MDC if it succeeded in ousting Mugabe.

Mr Blair told reporters travelling with him that the Commonwealth meeting must send "a strong statement in support of democratic and fair elections, whether it is in Zimbabwe or anywhere else".

He added: "It's important to make it quite clear that if the opposition do win in Zimbabwe, they are given strong and unequivocal support and any attempt to interfere with the results would be an outrage to the democratic principles of the Commonwealth.

"There obviously has been a high level of intimidation but it does appear that the opposition enjoys considerable support.

"The sense that I have is that it's more open than people might have thought a few weeks ago."

Mr Blair has accepted that Britain's view that Zimbabwe should be suspended from the Commonwealth will not prevail at the summit, which begins tomorrow and lasts until Tuesday.

But he wants a "strong signal" sent to Mr Mugabe that the election must be seen to be free and fair.

Mr Blair defended the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting against charges that the 54-nation body was too unwieldy to have much influence in international affairs.

He said: "I think it is important that the Commonwealth meets. It is a unique institution, it draws countries from many different continents and it gives people an opportunity to discuss issues of common interest."

At Coolum, Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon declined to reveal what a pre-summit meeting of foreign ministers today had agreed to recommend over Zimbabwe to the Commonwealth leaders.

But he hinted no punitive measures would be taken until after the elections.

Mr McKinnon said that around 40 Commonwealth observers were monitoring the election in Zimbabwe.

"This issue of observers on the ground is very

important ... And clearly will have some bearing on the future course of action," said Mr McKinnon.

"The general tenor of reporting ... Is that the situation is certainly not good, the situation is deteriorating."

Diplomats suggested that the Commonwealth was likely to issue a strongly worded statement to Mugabe, with a final warning that the election must be free and fair or Zimbabwe would face the consequences.

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