Pakistani military experts strengthen Mugabe's army

Pakistan has sent several senior military experts to help strengthen President Robert Mugabe's army, which has been severely weakened by mass resignations, desertions and a Western military embargo.

The secondment of the Pakistanis to retrain and re-equip the Zimbabwean army comes as Mr Mugabe is desperate to beef up his forces as he fears the deteriorating economy may lead to social unrest.

Mr Mugabe has relied heavily on his army to crush any challenge to his rule. The Pakistanis arrived as annual inflation surged to 1,281 per cent, the highest in the world, leaving a majority of Zimbabweans unable to afford the basics for survival, and raising the spectre of mass strife. The Pakistani experts will stay in Zimbabwe for at least two years and will be paid in US dollars by the Zimbabwe government, which is struggling to raise foreign currency to pay for essential imports such as fuel and food.

The first secretary at the Pakistani embassy in Harare, Safdara Hayat, said that his country's experts were brought in under a military co-operation agreement signed with Zimbabwe last week. He confirmed the Zimbabwe government would pay the military experts. Although exact numbers were not available, Mr Hayat said those already in Zimbabwe had been seconded to the air force.

The Zimbabwe air force has played a particularly important role in quelling mass protests by monitoring ground movements of protesters. Asked why Pakistan, a Commonwealth country, was deploying military trainers to Zimbabwe despite human rights abuses that had prompted the Commonwealth to suspend the country, Mr Hayat said only: "Pakistan has been involved in military and defence co-operation with Zimbabwe for a long time. The agreement has only been renewed now." The last such agreement was signed in 1983.

Zimbabwe said that it had every right to pursue bilateral deals with Commonwealth nations.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change condemned Pakistan's decision. A party spokesman, Nelson Chamisa, said that the deal proved "the Mugabe regime was in perennial combat with its people," and accused Mr Mugabe of importing "gunmen, not grain".

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