Thousands celebrate Mugabe's 89th birthday

BINDURA, Zimbabwe (AFP) - Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Africa's oldest leader, treated 10,000 party faithful on Saturday to a feast of music and poetry singing his praise to mark his 89th birthday.

Mugabe, who turned 89 on February 21, sported a bright red cap with his year of birth in green numbers and looked jovial as he cut his birthday cakes during an event at a stadium in the northeastern mining town of Bindura.

The man who has ruled the southern African nation since independence in 1980 walked around the stadium wearing an elegant tan suit and waving at the crowd, flanked by his wife Grace and two children.

Showing no sign of fatigue, he gave the ZANU-PF officials and supporters a trademark hour-long fiery speech packed with anti-Western rhetoric and stinging criticism of his political opponents.

"Forward with winning elections, down with imperialism," he roared.

He also called for harmony ahead of a referendum on a new constitution which is due in two weeks and supposed to pave the way for July polls that should end the uneasy power-sharing deal between Mugabe's party and his rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

Mugabe released 89 balloons into the sky and was also presented with four huge cakes, including one weighing 89kg.

"Time has come for us as the youth to stand by president Mugabe as we go vote," said a ZANU-PF youth Talent Gava, who was among the well wishers. "We will not let him down."

Last year, Mugabe accepted nomination from his party to stand for re-election.

Israeli President Shimon Peres, born a few months before Mugabe, is the only currently serving head of state in the world older than the Zimbabwean strongman.

Mugabe's health has been the subject of speculation, especially since WikiLeaks released a 2008 US diplomatic cable in which central bank chief Gideon Gono claimed the president had prostate cancer and less than five years to live.

He often travels to Singapore for health check-ups.