Factional fighting flares up in Zimbabwe; Clash of Mugabe, Nkomo groups threatens stability

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Fighting between the two guerrilla army factions in Zimbabwe has intensified this week to the point where the government of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe is seriously concerned about the situation.

The clashes are a major setback to Zimbabwe hopes that the deep and continuing rift between the country's rival tribal groups was gradually being healed.

Because the flare-up threatens internal stability, it also damages Zimbabwe's international image, perhaps deterring further Western investment, which is considered essential.

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The government hopes, however, that the worst is over and that calm will soon be restored.

The fighting unfortunately coincided with publication of a plan to appeal for nearly $2 billion in foreign aid to implement reconstruction, rural development, and refugee programs in Zimbabwe. It is also considered grams in Zimbabwe. It is also considered likely that the violence will encourage a faster rate of white emigration later this year, following a record outflow of people from the country last year.

The trouble currently is centered around Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city, where residents were urged by police on Feb. 12 to stay in their homes, and in the Midlands area of the country, between the central towns of Que Que and Gwelo.

The fighting is between forces of Mr. Mugabe's former guerrilla army and those of Joshua Nkomo, his former guerrilla partner and present political rival. Upwards of 100 people are reported dead and many more are wounded as a result of clashes stemming from efforts to integrate the rival groups into a Zimbabwe national army.

[The Nkomo forces are called ZIPRA (Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army) while those of Mr. Mugabe are ZANLA (Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army). Mr. Nkomo is "minister without portfolio" in the Mugabe government.]

Ironically, in his effort to separate the combatants, the Zimbabwe prime minister was forced to call upon units from the former Rhodesian security forces that had opposed both ZIPRA and ZANLA in the seven-year guerrilla war that ended 14 months ago.

Black regular troops from the former Rhodesian African Rifles were deployed in Bulawayo at three parts of the city -- Entumbane, Glenville, and on the main road south out of the city. Their assignment was to try to crush the ZIPRA dissidents who, according to Mr. Mugabe, were refusing to obey the orders of their officers.

The sporadic fighting in and around Bulawayo (population 400,000) brought business to a standstill. Shops and schools were closed. Milk deliveries were cancelled and the railway services shut down. Whites remained in their homes, and streets in the city center were deserted.

Mr. Mugabe told Parliament here that there was "sinister undertones" and a "definite organized pattern" among certain elements of the ZIPRA forces that had resulted in the factional fighting in Bulawayo and at Connemara in the Midlands.

The current fighting is on a far larger scale than last November's similar outbreak of violence between ZIPRA and ZANLA at Entumbane township in Bulawayo, which was the location of renewed violence on Feb. 12. On the earlier occasion 58 people, mainly civilians caught in the cross fire, were killed.

Not only does the death toll threaten to be more than double this time, but the incidents have been far more serious in that the national army has split down the middle along political and tribal lines.

Last November, the national army held firm when fighting broke out between the two guerrilla groups. But this time what is officially described as "a lawless minority" among the 11,000 troops in the integrated battalions, split along party lines into supporters of Mr. Mugabe's majority ZANU-PF Party and Mr. Nkomo's Patriotic Front (ZAPU) Party.

Officials say that top Nkomo politicians and guerrilla commanders intervened ineffectually with their troops to prevent them from taking up arms. Some troops have blamed the flare-up on the recent demotion of Mr. Nkomo from the powerful home affairs post in the Cabinet to the relatively junior post of minister without portfolio, though he has responsibility for public service and for some security matters.

The split in the national army has meant that Mr. Mugabe has been forced to rely on the 3,000-strong white-officered black regulars in the former Rhodesian African Rifles, the largely white Air Force, and white police and Army reservists to restore stability. The clashes have damaged his political base in that radical and militant elements within his own party have long argued against the coalition with Mr. Nkomo and want a tougher line against the veteran Ndebele leader.

Mr. Nkomo may face a leadership crisis within his own party. It is known that he came under severe pressure from his militant supporters last month to pull out of the coalition government following his demotion in the Cabinet.

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