HARARE: Zimbabwe on Thursday awaited the outcome of presidential elections that have plunged the country into bloodshed and protest, stirring memories of a traumatic past.
A day after three people were shot dead during demonstrations against alleged electoral fraud, the capital Harare -- its centre cleared by troops -- braced for the announcement of the results later Thursday.
"The presidential election results will start to be announced around 10 pm," Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) commissioner Qhubani Moyo told AFP. "We are hopeful that all of them will be announced today."
The vote on Monday -- the first since iron-fisted ruler Robert Mugabe was ousted last year -- were meant to turn the page on years of brutal repression.
But anger flared over alleged vote-rigging, prompting troops to use live rounds on protestors.
The government accused the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition party of inciting the unrest and vowed to enforce a security clampdown.
But President Emmerson Mnangagwa also said on Twitter that he wanted an independent investigation into the killings, and that he sought to settle differences "peacefully".
The presidential race has pitted 75-year-old Mnangagwa, Mugabe's former ally in the ruling ZANU-PF party, against the MDC's leader, Nelson Chamisa, 35 years his junior.
In a late-night press conference on Wednesday, Home Affairs Minister Obert Mpofu warned further protests would not be tolerated.
"The opposition... are testing our resolve and I think they are making a big mistake," he said.
On Thursday, soldiers guarded the headquarters of ZANU-PF, while armoured personnel carriers, water cannon trucks and police anti-riot vans took position outside MDC headquarters.
Soldiers brandishing assault rifles and police shouted at pedestrians and traders to leave central Harare, AFP journalists witnessed.
- Victory claim -
Chamisa ratcheted up pressure, saying he had won the presidential vote and that the result was being faked.
"What they have been trying to do of late is to play around... that is rigging, that is manipulation, trying to bastardise the result, and that we will not allow," he told reporters.
In official results from the parliamentary election, also held on Monday, ZANU-PF won easily -- suggesting Mnangagwa would be on course to retain the presidency.
Mnangagwa had promised a free and fair vote after the military ushered him to power when Mugabe was forced to resign.
A credible and peaceful vote was meant to end Zimbabwe's international isolation and attract foreign investment to revive the shattered economy.
The MDC said the army had opened fire on Wednesday "for no apparent reason," killing unarmed civilians.
"It's disappointing -- the government's reaction only made things worse. It was heavy-handed," trader Timie Manuwere, 37, told AFP.
"But I didn't expect things to really change much with the elections. It was highly unlikely these guys would just give up power after eight months."
Election observers from the Commonwealth issued a statement Thursday to "denounce the excessive use of force against unarmed civilians" while former colonial power Britain appealed for Zimbabwe to remove the army from the streets.
Before the violence, European Union observers declared they found an "un-level playing field and lack of trust" in the election process.
- History of election violence -
Under Mugabe, elections were often marred by fraud and deadly violence.
Of 210 parliamentary seats, 207 have been counted with ZANU-PF winning 144 and the MDC Alliance just 61.
ZEC chairwoman Priscilla Chigumba, a high court judge, has flatly rejected allegations of bias and rigging.
Mugabe, 94, voted in Harare on Monday alongside his wife Grace after he stunned observers by calling for voters to reject ZANU-PF, his former party.
The campaign and polling day were lauded as relatively peaceful and open.
Mnangagwa was the clear election front-runner, benefitting from tacit military support and state resources. But Chamisa, a lawyer and pastor, sought to tap into the youth and urban vote.
Mnangagwa was allegedly involved in violence and intimidation during the 2008 elections when then opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai pulled out of the run-off after attacks claimed the lives of at least 200 of his supporters.
If no presidential candidate wins at least 50 percent of the ballots cast in the first round, a run-off is scheduled for September 8.