HARARE, Apr 18 (Reuters) Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe today vowed to crack down mercilessly on opponents he said were trying to topple him through violent protests.
''I want to warn them that they are playing with fire,'' Mugabe told thousands at a sports stadium in a speech marking Zimbabwe's 26 years of independence, all of it under his rule.
It was Mugabe's second warning since his main opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), called last month for street protests to end his long rule.
Zimbabwe is battling its worst economic downturn since independence from Britain, dramatised by the world's highest inflation rate, unemployment above 70 per cent and shortages of fuel, food and foreign currency.
Mugabe departed from his prepared text to deliver his warning, speaking in both English and the local Shona.
''Anyone, who dares lead any group of persons to embark on a campaign of violence, will be inviting the full wrath of the law to descend mercilessly on him or those who follow him,'' he said.
Political analysts say the government is concerned that Tsvangirai's call could be heeded by Zimbabweans, many of whom are increasingly unable to cope with a crumbling economy.
Tsvangirai last month threatened to lead a campaign of peaceful mass protests, prompting a warning from Mugabe, 82, that he would be ''dicing with death''.
''There are those who dream governing this country. I want to tell them that dreams are only dreams, they should end at home,'' Mugabe said to cheers from the crowd.
Some at the rally expressed scepticism about the success of any opposition protests, but equally doubted Mugabe's government had any fresh ideas to solve the country's deepening crisis.
''I think these guys have no new ideas to solve all problems confronting us. They have done their part and I think someone else should take over for a change,'' said 25-year-old Kennedy Chikuse, who said he had come to watch a soccer match scheduled for later in the day.
ECONOMY THE KEY ISSUE Mugabe revised down the economic outlook, putting growth at between 1-2 per cent on the back of officially projected growth of 9 percent in the key agriculture sector.
The government earlier put 2006 growth at 2-3.5 per cent, but independent analysts see the economy shrinking even further after contracting by about a third over the past six years.
Mugabe reiterated that his government was seeking a 51 percent controlling stake in foreign-owned mines, backing a proposal which has fanned fears among foreign investors.
Mugabe has in recent years used his public speeches mainly to rail against Britain and the United States, accusing them of campaigning for regime change.
The two countries have led limited Western sanctions against the government over charges of political repression and vote rigging.
Mugabe co-led the 1970s guerrilla war against white minority rule in the then British colony of Rhodesia and was revered in his early days in power as a nationalist hero.
But the memory of that struggle is lost on many jobless young Zimbabweans, who are fleeing in their hundreds of thousands to neighbouring South Africa and beyond.
Reuters SB KP2028