Zimbabwe says military leader shot

He is wounded; uncertainty in nation builds

By Celia W. Dugger
New York Times / December 17, 2008
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JOHANNESBURG - A Zimbabwean military commander who belongs to President Robert Mugabe's inner circle and is widely regarded as a main organizer of the brutal crackdown on the political opposition earlier this year was shot in the hand on Saturday during a nighttime ambush, the state-controlled media reported yesterday.

Mugabe's government said that the shooting was an assassination attempt and part of a broader effort to destabilize the country, while a senior opposition official said in an interview that he believed it grew out of an internecine battle within ZANU-PF, the ruling party, over who will succeed the 84-year-old Mugabe, in power for 28 years.

In the feverish atmosphere of Harare, the capital, the shooting added yet another ominous and opaque episode to Zimbabwe's unfolding political drama, sent a jolt of fear through opposition and civic circles, and sparked a fresh round of rumors that a state of emergency or military coup could be possible.

A cholera epidemic is raging across the country, hyperinflation has rendered the local currency virtually worthless, and abductions of opposition and civic activists have spiked. Earlier this month, about 100 soldiers rioted in Harare to protest their inability to withdraw their meager salaries from banks short of cash.

The article yesterday in the state-run Herald newspaper did not offer evidence that the attack on the air force commander, Air Marshal Perence Shiri, was politically motivated, nor did it explain why the Saturday shooting was not reported earlier.

Home Minister Kembo Mohadi was quoted as saying in a statement that the shooting is part of "a build-up of terror attacks targeting high profile persons, government officials, government establishments, and public transportation systems."

His statement cited bombings in August of the Harare Central police station, a road and rail bridges, as well as November bombings of the criminal investigation department's headquarters in Harare and, again, the police station. It alleged that following investigations of the incidents, plastic explosives were recovered from a senior opposition official.

Officials in the opposition Movement for Democratic Change dismissed the idea that the party was involved in any of the incidents, saying it remains committed to nonviolence.

Tendai Biti, the party's secretary general, said in an interview that he is worried that Mugabe intends to use the shooting of Air Marshal Shiri - and the general environment of conflict and fear - to go after the opposition, as well as the faction in his own party that is out of favor. Biti said he believes Shiri's shooting comes as a result of internal battles within the ruling party.

"Mugabe can kill two birds with one stone," Biti said. "He can use it as a way of attacking us, and then attacking whatever faction of ZANU-PF he wants to decimate."

For weeks, officials in Mugabe's government have been trying to make the case that Botswana, his most outspoken critic in the region, is letting the opposition train people on its soil to topple him - a charge Botswana has vociferously denied.

Biti said he believes state security agents have tortured recently abducted opposition activists to extract false, videotaped confessions as part of Mugabe's attempt to make a case against Botswana and the opposition with the Southern African Development Community, a 15-nation bloc that is mediating the Zimbabwe crisis.

The MDC's candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, won more votes than Mugabe in March elections but quit before a runoff in June after thousands of his supporters were beaten and more than 100 were killed.

Mugabe and Tsvangirai signed a power-sharing deal three months ago, but remain deadlocked over the division of ministries. The opposition insists on oversight of the police since Mugabe has retained control of all branches of the military. Both the police and the military have long been crucial to Mugabe's repression of his rivals for power.

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