"Fit as a fiddle" Mugabe returns from Singapore

HARARE Thu Apr 12, 2012 4:59pm IST

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe listens to speeches during his 88th birthday rally in Mutare about 265km (165miles) east of the capital Harare, February 25, 2012. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo/Files

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe listens to speeches during his 88th birthday rally in Mutare about 265km (165miles) east of the capital Harare, February 25, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo/Files

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HARARE (Reuters) - President Robert Mugabe returned home on Thursday, looking fit after a trip to Singapore that had ignited speculation the veteran Zimbabwean leader was seriously ill.

The 88-year-old President, who has ruled the southern African country for more than three decades, landed at Harare's main airport in a chartered plane accompanied by his wife Grace.

Information minister Webster Shamu blamed western media for spreading rumours about Mugabe's health. Media had speculated that Mugabe went for vital medical attention in Singapore where he travelled for check-ups eight times last year.

"As you can see, he is fit as a fiddle. Why do we spread rumours? It's all lies told by a press driving an imperialist agenda," Shamu told a group of reporters at the airport.

Three hours after his arrival just after 7 a.m. (0500 GMT), Mugabe was chairing a weekly cabinet meeting that rescheduled from Tuesday, senior government officials told Reuters.

Mugabe went round the cabinet room greeting and laughing with ministers, including those from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by his bitter rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the officials said.

Mugabe and Tsvangirai share power in a fragile coalition formed three years ago.

A Reuters reporter had earlier seen Mugabe at the airport joking and laughing with Vice President Joice Mujuru, a possible successor.

The former guerrilla leader has been the subject of several health scares, with some reports saying he has prostate cancer, but in February interviews with state media he laughed off suggestions that he was seriously ill.

Mugabe and close aides have kept his health a closely guarded secret.

Some members of his ZANU-PF party are afraid that, should Mugabe die in office without settling a bitter succession battle, the party could erupt in internal conflict and destabilise the country.

Although ZANU-PF officials rally behind Mugabe in public, in private many want him to retire and pass the baton to a younger person as they fear his advanced age may cost the party victory in an upcoming election.

But while some ZANU-PF members see Mugabe as a political liability, they recognise him as the only person able to control the highly partisan Zimbabwean army led by veterans of the 1970s independence war.

Many are also unsure whether his potential successors can defeat ZANU-PF's most formidable opponent, Tsvangirai, in a free election. Elections must be held by next year under the terms of their power-sharing deal.

(Reporting by Nelson Banya; Editing by Ed Stoddard and Robin Pomeroy)

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