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By Cris Chinaka
Harare - Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was quoted on Sunday as saying he would be willing to hand power to a ruling party ally when he was sure the country was safe from 'sellouts' and from British interference.
But the state-run Sunday Mail newspaper said he gave no time-frame and again vowed to stop the opposition taking power.
Mugabe is fighting for re-election in a June 27 run-off against Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The opposition leader won the first round in March but not with enough votes to take the presidency.
The veteran Zimbabwean leader, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980, has threatened to go to war to stop a Tsvangirai victory.
The Mail said Mugabe told a campaign rally late on Saturday that his "leadership was prepared to relinquish power to those (Zanu-PF officials) that uphold the country's (independence) legacy".
"This country cannot be sold at the stroke of a pen," he said, repeating a vow not to let the MDC, whom he has branded as British puppets, rule the country.
The Mail said Mugabe urged supporters to concentrate on defending his government's land nationalisation and black economic empowerment policies, and not on complaints by what he called "sellouts" that Zanu-PF has been in power for too long.
Zimbabwe's agricultural sector, once one of the most prosperous in Africa, has collapsed, and shortages of bread, milk and meat are common. Inflation is running at 165 000 percent and unemployment is 80 percent.
Two top officials, including former finance minister Simba Makoni, who stood against him in presidential elections in March, quit Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF party early this year, saying he did not want to retire.
"I will not grow old"
Mugabe said "the country's leaders would pass on the baton to individuals that are known to be committed to Zimbabwe's independence ideals," the newspaper quoted him as saying.
"We are the custodians of Zimbabwe's legacy. We will pass this on to those we know are fully aware of the party's ideology, those who value the country's legacy. We will pass on leadership to them, telling them to move forward."
Mugabe has previously said he did not want to name an heir over fears he or she would become a target of other officials nursing ambitions to succeed him as Zanu-PF leader.
The 84-year-old president gave no timetable for his possible retirement and added: "But as long as the British still want to come here, I will not grow old; until we know we no longer have sellouts among us."
Mugabe this week threatened that he and his independence war veterans will take up arms again to stop the MDC taking power.
The MDC and rights groups say Zanu-PF have launched a brutal campaign of violence which has killed at least 66 MDC activists, wounded hundreds others and displaced tens of thousands since the March 29 election.
Tsvangirai says he is still confident of victory despite an intimidation campaign that has seen him being detained several times this month.
The party's secretary-general Tendai Biti was arrested on Thursday on what critics call trumped up treason charges, and is expected to appear in court on Monday.