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Zimbabwe's Mugabe Turns 87 Amid Rumors of Ill Health, Rising Tensions

There were many reports of youth militia associated with Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF forcing people to make contributions to fund official celebrations in Harare on Saturday

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe marked his 87th birthday Monday amid lingering reports of increasing health problems and mounting calls for him to resign.

Many cash-strapped government ministries took out full-color advertisements in the state-controlled Herald newspaper congratulating Mr. Mugabe on his birthday.

In power since Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, President Mugabe has seen most of his colleagues and friends of that era retired or passed on, including Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda, Mozambique's Samora Machel and Joachim Chissano, Namibia's Sam Nujoma, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and Malawi's late Kamuzu Banda.

There were many reports of youth militia associated with Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF forcing people to make contributions to fund official celebrations in Harare on Saturday.

The independent paper Newsday reported chaos in the Mbare township of the capital on Sunday as ZANU-PF supporters forced market traders to close their stalls and force-marched them to an unofficial rally celebrating Mr. Mugabe’s life.

The youths reportedly handed out T-shirts emblazoned with images of President Mugabe and inscribed with messages proclaiming that the ageing leader will be ZANU-PF's candidate for president in the ballot the party wants later this year.

Political analyst and longtime Mugabe critic John Makumbe of the University of Zimbabwe told VOA Studio 7 reporter Patience Rusere it was business as usual in the country as there was not much excitement over the president’s birthday.

But Livingston Dzikira of the Zimbabwe Youth Council admired Mr. Mugabe's leadership saying he had been “amazing,” managing to govern the country into his old age and to outwit political opponents inside and outside his party.

Zimbabwean police on Monday again threatened to crush any Egyptian-style revolution following the arrests Saturday of 46 human rights activists for allegedly plotting a mass uprising to break Mr. Mugabe’s 30-year grip on power.

Police spokesman James Sabau told reporters in Harare that the activists - members of the International Socialist Organization pressure group - were arrested while watching videos of the recent regime-changing uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

He accused the group of trying to “subvert a constitutionally-elected government” by organizing similar protests. "It has been said before by our commanders and I will say it again - the Egyptian-style protests have no place in Zimbabwe," said Sabau.

Those arrested included International Socialist Organization leader Munyaradzi Gwisai, a former member of Parliament for the Movement for Democratic Change and a law lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe.

Defense attorney Marufu Mandevere dismissed the charges as "trumped-up" and without basis. He said the activists were likely to be arraigned later this week.

The MDC formation of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai condemned the arrests and called on the Zimbabwe Republic Police to release the activists.

"The arrests are a clear sign that some ZANU-PF functionaries are denying the people of Zimbabwe their democratic and constitutional rights to freedom of movement and gathering," said a statement issued by the prime minster's party.

South African-based political analyst George Mkhwanazi told reporter Ntungamili Nkomo that the North African experience has put the Harare government in a panic.

"This is indicative of the state of fear in the government. They are not sure what may befall them," Mkhwanazi said.

Elsewhere, 24 MDC activists arrested last week in Nyanga, Manicaland province, among them Nyanga lawmaker North Douglas Mwonzora, appeared in court on Monday charged with carrying out political violence. They were granted bail, but remained in custody after the State invoked a provision of the country's Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act which allows for another week's detention pending state appeal of the bail.

The seeming crackdown on MDC supporters and human rights activists has intensifiede tensions in the two-year-old national unity government with Mr. Mugabe and Mr. Tsvangirai set to meet in the next few days to take up the question.

The two met on Monday but did not, as anticipated, discuss political violence and the arrests of MDC activists. Mr. Tsvangirai had promised to confront Mr. Mugabe on the issue when the president returned from Singapore where ZANU-PF officials said he was receiving follow-up care after surgery to remove an eye cataract.

Other reports have said Mr. Mugabe is being treated for prostate cancer.

Tsvangirai spokesman Luke Tamborinyoka told VOA Studio 7 reporter Jonga Kandemiiri that the two leaders will meet again at the end of the week.