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Zimbabwe poll 'free',say monitors

Zimbabwe's elections were free, says the head of African monitors despite allegations by the main challenger to President Robert Mugabe and a local monitoring group that the vote was heavily rigged.

Olusegun Obasanjo, head of the African Union observer mission, said his monitors noted some apparent irregularities but that they did not constitute evidence of systematic tampering.

Mr Mugabe's supporters have rejected allegations of rigging and claimed victory, raising fears of a fresh uncertainty in a country long afflicted by division and economic turmoil.

"Yes, the election is free," Mr Obasanjo said. He described the vote as credible unless any evidence to the contrary emerges.

However, he also asked election authorities to investigate reports that tens of thousands of eligible voters were turned away, and to publish the exact numbers of voters. Another poll monitoring group in Zimbabwe said as many as one million of the more than six million eligible voters were prevented from casting ballots.

"If 25% were not allowed, then, yes, the election is fatally flawed," said Mr Obasanjo, a former Nigerian president. His mission has 70 observers.

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, Mr Mugabe's main opponent in the presidential vote, has declared the election "null and void."

Official results announced by the election commission by Friday showed Mr Mugabe's ZANU-PF capturing 54 of the 210 parliament seats and Mr Tsvangirai's party winning 19 seats so far. Full results on the presidential and parliament votes have been promised by Monday.

Mr Obasanjo said voting itself was peaceful but the observers noted "incidences that could have been avoided and even tended to have breached the law." Independent election monitors have alleged many people were unable to vote because of disorganised voters' lists and a chaotic programme to register electors on those lists in the run-up to polling day.

Aisha Abdullahi, the African Union's commissioner for political affairs, said observers reported that Zimbabwe had made improvements in the conduct of elections since the last violent and disputed elections in 2008 that led regional leaders to forge a shaky coalition between Mr Mugabe and Mr Tsvangirai, the former opposition leader. But she said voters' lists this time were not made available in time for inspection and verification by voters, contesting parties and candidates. Public scrutiny of the voters' roll was vital, she said.

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