updated 2/23/2008 4:45:07 AM ET 2008-02-23T09:45:07

As many as 10,000 people began gathering in a town in southern Zimbabwe for President Robert Mugabe's 84th birthday celebrations, state radio reported Friday.

Many traveled free on commandeered buses and trains of the state railroad, it said. The country suffers chronic shortages of hard currency, gasoline, food and most basic goods in the worst economic crisis since Mugabe led the nation to independence in 1980.

Organizers of Saturday's ceremonies in the border town of Beitbridge said they raised about 3 trillion Zimbabwe dollars for the bash -- the equivalent of about $250,000 at the dominant black market exchange rate.

Inflation has soared to 100,580 percent, according to government statistics released Thursday.

The state broadcaster repeatedly aired happy birthday jingles to Mugabe in an unusually intense propaganda blitz, praising him as the nation's founding father as next month's presidential elections approach.

The dominant state press carried pages of supplements and large color advertisements, many from bankrupt state enterprises, describing Mugabe as a visionary and exemplary statesman.

Mugabe made a nationwide television broadcast Thursday to mark his birthday, and verbally attacked former ruling party loyalist Simba Makoni, 57, who has challenged him in presidential elections. Parliamentary and local council elections are also to be held March 29 along with the presidential vote.

Compared to 'prostitute'
"I have compared him to a prostitute," Mugabe said. "But you see a prostitute could have done better than Makoni because she has clients," he said.

He also said Makoni and former information minister Jonathan Moyo, a former Mugabe loyalist, had become "deviant" from the ruling party principles that built the country.

Mugabe faces his greatest electoral challenge since 1980 from Makoni and the leader of an opposition faction, Morgan Tsvangirai.

He could face a run off presidential poll for the first time if he doesn't win 51 percent of the presidential vote.

Makoni is expected to attract votes from disillusioned members of the ruling party and the fractured opposition. The economic meltdown has fueled deep divisions in the ruling party.

He has promised to stabilize the embattled economy and investigate political grievances in a country where the government is accused of abusing human and democratic rights.

Makoni, fired by Mugabe as finance minister in 2002 in disagreements over economic policy, has said his campaign was a chance for supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF to reinvigorate the party that fought for independence. He called on parliamentary candidates disillusioned with their own parties to stand as independents under his banner in the elections.

Makoni has unveiled a rising sun campaign emblem he says represents "newness, light and hope for the regeneration and renewal of the Zimbabwe spirit."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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