Mugabe accuses Britain of paying off opposition 'lackeys'

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is accusing Britain of paying for opposition supporters to campaign against him in last month's disputed elections.

Zimbabwe's controversial president, Robert Mugabe, made a blistering attack Friday on the country's former colonial power, saying the British were "thieves" who paid opposition supporters to oppose his government.

Mugabe was speaking to 15,000 people at a rally to mark the anniversary of the end of white minority rule in 1980. It was his first speech in public since disputed elections on March 29 that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) says it won.

To the roar of cheers and chants of "Down with the British," the 84-year-old former guerrilla leader used bitter invective and colourful rhetoric to denounce London.

"Today they [the British] are like thieves fronting their lackeys among us, which they pay to confuse our people," he said, speaking in the local language, Shona, "We are being bought like livestock."

Mugabe's government is refusing to release the results of the presidential side of the March vote, saying that a runoff election may be necessary with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

Tsvangirai's MDC narrowly won voting for parliamentary seats, but results in 23 constituencies are to be recounted. A judge in Harare on Friday threw out a petition filed by the MDC, trying to block the recounts.

Tsvangirai has said Mugabe's supporters will try to rig the recounts, as well as the presidential runoff, should it take place.

Dreadful economic conditions

Mugabe's critics say he is a corrupt and inept ruler who props up his authoritarian regime with rhetoric from a freedom struggle whose gains have been squandered by successive governments over the past quarter-century.

The dreadful state of Zimbabwe's economy was the main election issue last month. More than three-quarters of the country's adult population is unemployed; food shortages are endemic and inflation is running at 100,000 per cent a year.

The United States, Britain and crucially, Zimbabwe's influential neighbour, South Africa, are all calling for the release of presidential election results so a semblance of normalcy can be restored.

With files from the Associated Press