Arms deal raises fears of coup if Mugabe loses vote

Zimbabwe has received a large consignment of arms from China and recalled all reservists ahead of a general election on 31 March, prompting fears that the army is planning to stage a coup in the event of a poll defeat for President Robert Mugabe.

The shipment, moved in secret via the port of Beira in Mozambique, includes heavy assault rifles, military vehicles called Dongfengs, riot equipment and teargas. Defence sources said the materiel would ensure the army is well equipped in case Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party loses the ballot and needs military help to hold on to power.

Just before Zimbabwe's last presidential election in 2002, the commander of the defence forces, Constantine Chiwengwa, and his predecessor, Vitalis Zvinavashe, warned that the army would stage a coup if Mr Mugabe were voted out of power in favour of his main opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai.

Mr Chiwenga and other senior generals have since repeated these warnings, saying they could never defer to anyone who did not fight in the 1970s independence war from Britain - a reference to Mr Tsvangirai. But the army's ability to take power and keep order has been severely curtailed by a United States and European Union arms embargo imposed in 2002 to protest at the regime's use of the army to crush dissent. The embargo has curbed Mr Mugabe's ability to replenish his armoury, already depleted by a deployment in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's civil war. Hence his need to turn to Asia and the Middle East for supplies.

Sources say that Mr Mugabe is also trying to entice the Chinese with mining and farming concessions in exchange for more arms. Zimbabwe has the world's second-largest reserves of platinum. Until recently it was the third-largest exporter of gold on the continent. However, many established mining companies have scaled down operations or closed because of an uneconomic, government-imposed exchange rate.

Army officials and the Defence Minister, Sydney Sekeramayi, have declined to comment on the arms purchase. Although Mr Mugabe has beaten the opposition into submission over the years and is likely to win the elections, sources say he is not taking any chances. Mr Mugabe's own post is not up for election until 2008, but he would have to resign were he to lose parliamentary elections.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe's top court heard a bid yesterday by a group of citizens abroad seeking to vote, a move the government fears could lead to more ballots for the opposition. Only citizens outside their home constituencies on official national duty can cast postal votes - a requirement which critics say has disenfranchised more than three million Zimbabweans living abroad. A lawyer for a group living in Britain told the Supreme Court that, by denying those abroad the right to vote, Mr Mugabe's government was denying citizens a fundamental constitutional right.

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