CHINHOYI, Zimbabwe — With his nation's economy in shambles, President Robert Mugabe threw himself a lavish 85th birthday party Saturday, using the opportunity to call on Zimbabwe's last white farmers to leave.
"Land distribution will continue. It will not stop," Mugabe said in Chinhoyi, 60 miles (100 kilometers) northwest of Harare. "The few remaining white farmers should quickly vacate their farms as they have no place there."
Mugabe was capitalizing on what has long been a sensitive issue in Zimbabwe and other nations in the region: the unjust division of land between whites and blacks that is a legacy of colonialism and white minority rule. Dozens of the several hundred white farmers left in Zimbabwe are currently challenging the right of its government to confiscate their land before a regional tribunal of Africa judges.
The birthday bash, which reportedly cost $250,000, was held as Zimbabwe's new unity government failed to secure financial aid to rescue the country's collapsed economy.
Zimbabwe faces the world's highest official inflation rate, a hunger crisis and a cholera epidemic that has killed nearly 4,000 people since August.
Mugabe, who turned 85 on Feb. 21, has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980. He was recently forced to relax his grip on power and enter a coalition government with longtime rival Morgan Tsvangirai who was made prime minister.
But the first few weeks of the unity government have been marred by squabbles over key positions and the continued arrest of political activists, leaving some doubting how much power Mugabe is prepared to relinquish.
"I am still in control and hold executive authority, so nothing much has changed," Mugabe told a crowd of about 2,000.
There has been a recent upsurge in reported "invasions" of white-owned farms, with one support group saying at least 40 white farmers have been forced off their land since January.
Last year, a regional court ruled that 78 white Zimbabweans could keep their farms, saying the government's land grab policy was racially motivated.
On Saturday, Mugabe called the ruling "nonsense" and said it was of "no consequence."
"We have our own laws which govern our own land issues," he said.
Critics blame Zimbabwe's economic collapse on Mugabe and his land reforms that saw white-owned farms seized and given to his cronies instead going to impoverished blacks as promised.
Many have criticized Mugabe for having lavish birthday celebrations while his beleaguered people die from disease and hunger. One in 10 Zimbabwean children will die before their fifth birthday, and most of their mothers won't even live to half Mugabe's age, the charity Save The Children said last week.
A smiling Mugabe was greeted by cheers and shouts of "Long live our president," as he arrived at the town's university hall on Saturday.
Dressed in a beige suit and red scarf, he released a bunch of balloons into the air and joked with young school children as he posed for photographers.
Tsvangirai decided not to attend the celebrations as he considered the event a "private" affair of Mugabe's party, his spokesman James Maridadi said.
On Friday, the coalition government failed to secure $2 billion for an economic rescue package from regional nations. A regional heads of state meeting will discuss proposals submitted by Zimbabwe, but it set no date and made no funding commitments.
Zimbabwe's finance minister, Tendai Biti, who belongs to Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, attended the ministerial meeting in Cape Town and asked for $2 billion _ half for emergency spending on schools, health care and infrastructure, and the rest on economic revival measures.