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Hundreds of Zimbabwe pilots, retired army fly to Libya

By Jo Swain

President Robert Mugabe has sent troops to Libya to defend Colonel Gadaffi, his long-standing ally and financier.

Early last Tuesday morning, several hundred serving and retired Zimbabwean soldiers and a handful of air force pilots flew from Harare to Libya on a chartered flight to join Gadaffi’s increasingly desperate battle to stay in power.

Zimbabwean state intelligence sources said some of the troops were from the commando regiment; others were from the Fifth Brigade that was once trained by North Korea and is infamous for crushing a rebellion in Matabeleland in the early 1980s in which 20,000 civilians were killed.

The Zimbabweans join other African mercenaries from the Ivory Coast, Chad and Mauritania who are fighting on behalf of Gadaffi in Tripoli against a popular uprising that has seized the east of the country.

The Zimbabwean force was sent in a secret arrangement made between Gadaffi, Mugabe and General Constantine Chiwenga, the chief of the armed forces and a staunch Mugabe loyalist.

British government officials said yesterday they were aware of the deal, which has been the subject of an internal intelligence report.

They said they believed that Gadaffi might seek refuge in Zimbabwe if he decides he cannot survive in power.

“There is an intense closeness between him and Mugabe. Zimbabwe is one country Gadaffi might choose to go to,” a Whitehall insider said.

The deal to lend Gadaffi his troops was so secret that even Emmerson Mnangagwa, the powerful minister of defence and a contender to succeed Mugabe, who has just turned 87, was not involved.

On Wednesday, Mnangagwa balked at answering a parliamentary question put by an opposition MP about reports that Zimbabwean soldiers were in Libya.

He would neither confirm nor deny the report, saying he had “no mandate” in his duties as defence minister to investigate happenings in another African country.

Mugabe has a history of military intervention in Africa. In 1997, without consultation, he sent his troops into the war-torn Congo to fight against rebels backed by Rwanda and Uganda, a war in which several million people died. The Zimbabwean military intervention was rewarded with choice pickings from Congo’s mineral resources, particularly diamonds and gold, which enriched many of the top military officers around Mugabe.

Gadaffi is one of Mugabe’s staunchest political allies on the African continent. A few years ago, he contributed millions of dollars of oil supplies that saved the Zimbabwean economy from complete collapse and he has invested in property. Recently his son, Saadi, was granted a concession to mine for diamonds in the Marange diamond field, one of the richest in the world.

After Gadaffi, in power since his 1969 military coup, Mugabe is Africa’s longest-surviving leader. The popular uprisings that have swept away dictators in Tunisia and Egypt and now threaten Gadaffi, are being avidly followed in Zimbabwe. Commentators are asking whether it is possible to have a revolution against Mugabe.

Most say it is not. But the uprisings inspired a march against Mugabe on Tuesday under the theme “power in numbers to remove dictatorship”. Taking no chances, Mugabe had many of the organisers arrested last week.