HARARE, Zimbabwe -- President Robert Mugabe has denied “vote rigging” in his country in an interview on the eve of elections Wednesday in which he aims to extend his 33-year grip on power.
Africa’s oldest head of state, who is seeking to defeat opponent Morgan Tsvangirai for a third time, told NBC News in a rare interview: "We’ve never rigged an election.
"This is not the first time we are voting. We started in 1980. Every five years we have done elections. They have never ever (been rigged) that I can assure you.”
Voters began lining up at 4 a.m. Wednesday local (10 p.m. Tuesday ET) to cast their ballot for either Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party or the Movement for Democratic Change led by Tsvangirai, 61, who is currently the country's Prime Minister.
Lines of voters snaked around one school in Harare, the Associated Press reported. "It is moving slowly, but I am here for as long as it takes. We have got to get this done," said voter Isaac Rufaro, who joined the line before dawn.
Mugabe, 89, who has led the country since it gained independence from the U.K. in 1980, said his age was no barrier to victory.
“The end of the person’s era is decided by the person themselves,” he said in Tuesday's interview. "It doesn’t matter what age he may be.”
Five years ago Tsvangirai, who has survived at least three assassination attempts, including one in which unidentified assailants tried to throw him from a 10th floor office window, quit the race after a wave of violent attacks on his supporters, despite winning the first round ballot.
Human rights groups said at least 86 people died and some 200,000 were forced from their homes in the run up to the 2008 ballot.
This time around, there have been fewer reports of violent incidents but a recent Amnesty International report accused Zimbabwean police of arresting and “intimidating human rights defenders.”
“The clampdown on the work of human rights defenders is a worrying indicator that government agencies remain actively hostile to civil society,” said Noel Kututwa, Amnesty International’s Africa deputy program director.
The United States also said it was “deeply concerned” by the lack of transparency in the preparations for the election.
Patrick Ventrell, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said the election was not seen as credible.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) also called for Mugabe to delay the elections to allow time for reforms to the official list of voters.
“We are concerned because things on the ground are not looking good,” Lindiwe Zulu, a special adviser on Zimbabwe to South African President Jacob Zuma, said earlier this month.
Mugabe labeled Zulu “stupid and idiotic,” branded American concerns “absolutely insane” and said he would rather withdraw from the SADC than postpone the election.
Mugabe insisted he had “no regrets” about his time in charge of the country. “I don’t have regrets at all,” he said.
First published July 31 2013, 2:26 AM