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On Zimbabwe Independence Day, Mugabe Warns Against Protests

Addressing a stadium full of his fellow Zimbabweans on the 26th anniversary of the country's independence, President Robert Mugabe acknowledged current economic difficulties but predicted an economic recovery while sternly warning the opposition against engaging in mass civil disobedience in protest of his rule and policies.

"The economy has over the past three years suffered from the effects of both a spate of devastating droughts and the effects of an evil program of unjustified sanctions, resulting in various shortages of food, drugs in hospitals and clinics, electricity supply and steep rises in prices of essential commodities," Mr. Mugabe told some 40,000 Zimbabweans gathered at Harare's National Stadium for a soccer match.

The president said his government has responded by launching what he described as a National Economic Development Priority Program to stabilize the economy in "the next six to nine months," concentrating on food security and agricultural output. He called for "aggressive marketing" of the country as an investment destination.

"Consequently, the economy is expected to grow" by 1-2% this year, he said, though most economists consider that the Zimbabwean economy is in its sixth straight year of contraction with little sign of recovery. Annual inflation through March was 913%.

Mugabe delivered a harsh warning to his political opposition not to challenge his rule by staging mass demonstrations and engaging in civil disobedience as the founding president of the Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai, has urged.

"Anyone...who dares go against the law, go against the security and stability of our country, and who dares lead any group of persons to embark on a campaign of violence or terrorist activities will be inviting the full wroth of the law to descend mercilessly on him or on those who follow him," Mr. Mugabe declared.

Correspondent Ben Chaleka for VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe reported from Harare.

Diplomats and visiting officials from around the Southern African region listened to the speech in which Mr. Mugabe remained defiant of the West and said he would not pull back from a controversial plan to take a 51% controlling stake in the country's mines.

Reporter Blessing Zulu detailed the 82-year-old president's main points.

A spokesman for the MDC faction led by Tsvangirai dismissed Mr. Mugabe's latest warning, saying the opposition will continue to try to mobilize national protests against the Mugabe government. Nelson Chamisa said the faction will discuss a response to what he described as Mr. Mugabe's use of a national event for his own purposes.

Southern Africa Director Peter Kagwanja of the International Crisis Group said from Pretoria that Mr. Mugabe's remarks signaled his concern about increased support among a disenchanted population for Tsvangirai's strategy of confrontation.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...