Shoot-out shatters calm between Zimbabwe rivals

Following large-scale guerrilla violence near Bulawayo this week, there is a greater awareness of the urgent need to reconcile the differences between this country's two main political factions.

A 24-hour gun battle between two rival guerrilla armies that left at least 55 dead and more than 300 wounded is gravely endangering the coalition government that has ruled Zimbabwe since independence seven months ago.

The shoot-out in the Bulawayo suburb of Entumbane was easily the worst confrontation between rival wings of the nationalist movement led by Prime Minister Robert Mugabe and his one-time partner in guerrilla warfare, Joshua Nkomo.

Together the two men 11 months ago negotiated a peace agreement and cease-fire with the whites and moderate blacks led by former Prime Minister Bishop Abel Muzorewa at the British-sponsored Lancaster House talks in London. They and their followers have grown steadily apart in the interim.

Not that the collapse of the uneasy coalition between Messrs. Mugabe and Nkomo, the two longtime rivals for supreme political authority in Zimbabwe, would necissitate a change of government. Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF has an absolute majority in Parliament with 57 of the 100 seats. Thus he could govern without the votes and support of the 20 Patriotic Front (ZAPU) members of Parliament who support Home Affairs Minister Nkomo.

The outburst of violence is a serious threat not just to Mr. Mugabe's announced "reconciliation" policy but also to hopes that Western countries will step up economic aid and private investment in Zimbabwe. Business leaders called on Mr. Mugabe while the firing was still going on to warn him that the deterioration in the security position was having an adverse impact on business confidence both at home and abroad.

Optimists here believe that the shooting could have a favorable effect if it finally convinces Mr. Mugabe and his top ministers that effective steps must be taken to disarm the guerrillas and speed up the integration of a national army.

The prime minister also will need to keep in check some of his more outspoken ministers -- such as Minister of Manpower Planning Edgar Tekere, who is currently on trial here for the murder of a white farmer, and Minister of Finance Nkala. Of course, the imminence of local government elections, in less than a fortnight's time, is not helping as both parties are trying to ensure that all their supporters will go to the polls.

Ironically, the shootout came in the wake of many claims that the foreign press in Zimbabwe had grossly exaggerated the degree of tension between the two political parties and their guerrilla armies.

Instead, the truth seems to be that so long as there are so many guns around and so many men in assembly camps in the rural areas or in Entumbane in Bulawayo or Chitungwiza in Salisbury, there will be a danger of violence.

The flashpoint last weekend was the ZANU-PF rally with Prime Minister Mugabe blaming Mr. Nkomo's supporters for starting stoning incidents on Nov. 9 and the mortar and small arms gunfighting that followed that evening.

But the Nkomo group blames the fighting on "inlfationary statements" made at the Mugabe party rally by Cabinet ministers.

Political analysts here believe that once the local government elections are out of the way and the integration of the Army has been concluded -- possibly by mid-1981 -- then the tension will ease. But this interpretation is dependent upon Mr. Mugabe remaining in firm control not only of his Cabinet colleagues but also of his grassroots supporters.

Since the two parties formed a coalition Cabinet in March this year, Mr. Nkomo has appeared increasingly resentful of his minor position in the administration as minister of home affairs whose chief responsibility is the police. He also has been angered by frequent attacks on himself and his party by senior ZANU-PF ministers.

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