The opposition has made repeated claims that Robert Mugabe, the curernt president, has attempted to rig the vote to assure himself a sixth term in office.

Resultys delayed

The first results were expected on Sunday but nearly 24 hours after voting ended at 7pm (1700GMT) on Saturday none had been released.

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Security forces were placed on high alert ahead of the election amid fears of a repeat of the bloodshed which followed Kenya's disputed elections last December.

Earlier reporters mobbed Judge George Chiweshe, electoral Commission chairman, demanding to know when he would start announcing official results.

Chiweshe said it was taking time because Zimbabweans had voted for a president, the two houses of parliament and local councilors, so four ballots had to be counted for each voter instead of one.

"This has been a more complicated election. We will be releasing the results as soon as we can," he said.

'Irreversible lead'

Tendai Biti, secretary general of the MDC, told a news conference early on Sunday: "This far, short of a miracle, we have won this election beyond any reasonable doubt."

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Biti, who gave partial unofficial results based on returns posted at polling stations where counting had been completed, said: "In our view, this trend is irreversible."

Kamahl Santamaria, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Zimbabwe, said that electoral laws only allowed the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to announce election results, a legal provision that the opposition have apparently ignored in saying that they had won 67 per cent of the vote.

Supporters of Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC candidate, celebrated in the streets after Biti's announcement, giving each other the openhanded wave that is the opposition party's symbol.

In Harare's densely populated Mbare suburb, drivers hooted their horns as opposition supporters sang and danced.

Strong support

Al Jazeera's Haru Mutasa reported that the opposition was basing its claim on results from urban areas, such as Bulawayo, where they have strong support.

"He announces results, declares himself and the MDC winner and then what? Declare himself president of Zimbabwe? It is called a coup d'etat and we all know how coups are handled"

George Charamba, Mugabe's spokesman
She said that in rural areas, where Mugabe's Zanu-PF is still popular, communication is not so good and that it would take several more hours before those results filter in.

George Charamba, Mugabe's spokesman, warned the MDC against an early victory claim.

"He announces results, declares himself and the MDC winner and then what? Declare himself president of Zimbabwe? It is called a coup d'etat and we all know how coups are handled," he told the state-run Sunday Mail newspaper. 

Even before the polls closed on Saturday, Mugabe's main challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai, who heads the MDC, and foreign observers had cast doubts on the validity of the ballot, alleging that the electoral roll had been stuffed with phantom voters.

With the West having accused 84-year-old Mugabe of rigging the last presidential election in 2002, monitors from European Union countries and the United States were all excluded this time as were nearly all foreign media.

Mugabe denial

Mugabe has shrugged off any suggestion of vote-rigging, warning the MDC to respect any announcement on the result.

"Why should I cheat? The people are there supporting us day in, day out," he told Al Jazeera.

Once seen as the region's breadbasket, Zimbabwe is now suffering from previously of shortages of even the most basic foodstuffs, such as cooking oil and bread.

The country is grappling with the impact of the world's highest rate of inflation - officially put at 100,580.2 per cent - and an unemployment level which has reached the 80 per cent mark.

Mugabe has blamed the country's economic woes on the European Union and the United States, which imposed sanctions on his inner circle after he was accused of rigging his 2002 re-election.