Is Mugabe preparing a coup?

Paul Trewhela notes the ominous implications of a report in The Zimbabwean

Last week's issue of The Zimbabwean, which is edited from Britain, leads with a report on the possible exchange of Chinese weapons for illegally mined diamonds in Zimbabwe (see below).

If the information in this report is proved correct, it would indicate that the Mugabe regime is preparing a bloody coup to preserve itself in office, in defiance of its loss of the general election last year, its subsequent power-sharing deal with the Movement for Democratic Change, the Kimberley Process which regulates the global gem trade and a ruling of the High Court in Harare.

The report suggests that the Mugabe regime - believed to have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of independent miners when it sent the army to seize the diamond fields at Chiadzwa in November 2008 - intends to exchange "blood diamonds" for weapons from China . The report indicates that a runway suitable for this kind of traffic has already been constructed in the diamond fields and is almost ready for use.

If the report is proved correct, it would indicate a qualitative escalation of Chinese intervention in Africa .

Armament of a resurgent Mugabe dictatorship by China , in defiance of the power-sharing agreement, would represent the initiation of a new Cold War in Africa , at a time when the United States and Britain are tied down in Afghanistan and Iraq , and handicapped by a massive sovereign debt crisis.

Such a development would have immediate and immensely grave implications for South Africa , and would represent a military-political destabilisation of the entire region.

Construction of a mile-long runway at Chiadzwa would further present a direct challenge to COSATU, which organised a boycott by dockers in South Africa three years ago of Chinese arms shipments to Mugabe. - Paul Trewhela

HARARE - A mile-long runway capable of accommodating massive, longrange cargo jets is being built in the Chiadzwa diamond fields in Zimbabwe, according to a British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph.

Aerial pictures published in the newspaper show that construction work is well under way, with a newly built control tower apparently complete and the runway nearly ready for surfacing. The images also show what appears to be a tented army camp in the diamond fields, which would be in violation of Zimbabwean court orders and of an undertaking to the Kimberley Process, which was set up to prevent "blood diamonds" from conflict zones entering the global gem trade.

The paper quoted diplomats and analysts saying the runway was probably intended for arms shipments, probably from China , for which troops loyal to President Robert Mugabe would pay on the spot with diamonds. There are other airfields within a short distance of the mining area, and no obvious need for a runway long enough for transport planes to take off and land even closer to the mines. A Western diplomat said the existence of the runway, out of sight except from the air, was "extremely" worrying.

One of the mining companies involved in the development says that it is building the runway in order to comply with Kimberley Process rules that diamonds be transported in the most secure way possible, and that a private contractor is responsible for security. The Daily Telegraph article gave no explanation as to why such a long runway was needed.

According to human rights groups, hundreds of independent miners were killed when soldiers seized control of the Chiadzwa area in November 2008, since. Since then others have been compelled to work for only a fraction of the value of the diamonds they unearth. Officers use the proceeds from their sale to enhance their meagre pay - a ploy encouraged by Mugabe's henchmen to help ensure the army's continued loyalty.

But the construction of the runway suggests that the army wants to use its access to the raw diamonds - whose production is worth an estimated £125 million a month - to obtain goods from abroad, in particular weapons.

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has been briefed about the continued presence of the army at the diamond fields and the construction of the secret runway. A party insider said: "We know about it and it is extremely sensitive. We are very worried about what we have found out this week."

China has long been Zimbabwe 's main source of arms, but delivery has been more difficult since a shipment was blocked in South Africa three years ago. Other deliveries have come in through Beira in Mozambique , but government officials in Maputo , have expressed concern over the issue.

The army has also been frustrated in its attempts to buy weapons by finance minister, Tendai Biti, a member of the MDC, who has blocked new arms purchases since taking control of the treasury under last year's power-sharing deal.

The new facility would give the Joint Operations Command, the military top brass who long swore they would never recognise Tsvangirai's authority, a way to obtain weapons independently.

A Western diplomat claimed the head of the armed forces, Constantine Chiwenga, had been "very busy" with the Chinese recently, adding: "We are concerned he is buying weapons."

A senior political source, who has seen the pictures, said: "Zanu (PF) believes these diamond fields will allow it to continue to defy outstanding issues of the political agreement.

"It only went into the inclusive government because it lost the elections but it has no intention of fulfilling the political agreement, and wants to go it alone. It needs an income to ensure loyalty among soldiers and other security forces."

The diamond fields could be worth billions of pounds and make a vital contribution to rebuilding a country brought to ruin by Mugabe's economic mismanagement.

Tens of millions of pounds worth of gems are smuggled into nearby Mozambique each month, mostly with the connivance of the army and police, to be bought by dealers from Lebanon , Belgium , Iraq , Mauritania and the Balkans.

The mines, whose rough diamonds have a characteristic and unappealing grey appearance, cover an area of 10 square miles. A British company, African Consolidated Resources (ACR), has a legal claim to them under a deal struck originally with the Zimbabwean government, but in 2006 the Mugabe regime went back on the agreement and declared the mines open to all comers.

Defence minister, Emmerson Mnangagwa, denied any knowledge of the runway under construction in the area. "Ask the mining ministry or home affairs, they might know about it", he said.

The mining minister, Obert Mpofu, also a member of Mugabe's party, said he was on holiday and therefore could not comment.

The government insists the army has withdrawn from the mining concession area and the mines are now being run by the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (ZMDC), ignoring a high court order granting that right to ACR.

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