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HARARE - Robert Mugabe marked his 85th birthday this weekend with a sumptuous banquet in Harare at the start of a week of parties which observers say is a further sign of the Zimbabwean President's defiance in the face of growing criticism of his regime.

His latest show of excess came as Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai said "maybe US$5 billion" ($10 billion) would be needed to rehabilitate the collapsed health, social and education systems.

Surreal celebrations got under way on Saturday as schoolboy pipers, accompanied by drum majorettes, marched through the decrepit capital and members of a ruling party youth organisation sold US$10 raffle tickets. Teetotal Mugabe's private party yesterday was hosted by his wife, Grace, 44, and attended by friends and a number of African diplomats.

A US$100-a-ticket gala dinner at Harare's Rainbow Towers Hotel on Thursday is advertised as a musical extravaganza, including Nigerian hip-hop star 2Face, Congolese rhumba band Werrason and a host of local acts. The parties will culminate on Sunday with a public feast and concert at Chinhoyi, which is to be televised. Dozens of animals will be slaughtered for the event and guests include hundreds of children who share Mugabe's birthday.

Zimbabwe University political science professor John Makumbe said the birthday display was the latest of many signals that the ruling Zanu-PF Party did not intend to respect the power-sharing agreement that saw Tsvangirai sworn in on February 12.

"The money for the parties and the cattle and chickens donated are extracted from people virtually against their will," he said.

The celebrations have been organised since 1986 by a Zanu-PF youth group. In a sign of the times, the group set out to raise only US$500,000 for Mugabe's birthday week against a reported US$1.2 million last year.

Last week group leader Absalom Sikhosana made a heartfelt plea on national radio for benefactors to make good on their promises According to some reports, pledges for only US$100,310 have come in, much in the form of food donations. State media have reported that each district in Zimbabwe is expected to donate 50 cattle and to raise US$1500.

- OBSERVER