Mugabe strikes back, seeing real threat to his rule

Zimbabwe Prime Minister Robert Mugabe sees necessity and opportunity in his intensified campaign against dissidents and chief political opponent Joshua Nkomo.

Mr. Mugabe sees, for the first time since he took office, signs of a serious guerrilla movement taking root in Zimbabwe, say informed observers in Harare. With hopes of a political solution fading, Mugabe has launched an all-out military campaign to ''stop the guerrilla movement in its infancy,'' says one source.

Mugabe is convinced that a military solution is needed. And he realizes that the dissident problem offers an opportunity to further discredit Mr. Nkomo, to whom the dissidents claim loyalty, these analysts say.

The ruthlessness of the military campaign is producing tragic consequences. Unofficial reports have put the civilian death toll in southwestern Zimbabwe between several hundred and a few thousand. Local clergymen have called for an outside investigation. Reports from the area claim Mugabe's army is chiefly responsible for the deaths - a charge the government denies. The government says the fatality estimates are based on the ''wildest speculation,'' although it concedes some civilians have been caught in ''cross fire.''

Whatever the death count, one informed source said it is clear ''something terribly wrong is happening.''

It appears the rising death toll is coming as a result of efforts by both the Army and the dissidents to gain popular support through brutal intimidation.

The government has increased its attacks on Nkomo along with its stepped-up military campaign. Nkomo has repudiated the dissidents, but the government continues to lay responsibility for the trouble at his doorstep. Recently Nkomo was detained when trying to travel out of the country. His passport was confiscated.

Mugabe has claimed Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) party is being supported by South Africa in carrying out alleged dissident activities.

The renewed attacks on Nkomo and his party suggest that Mugabe may be trying to nudge Zimbabwe further toward a single-party state - a goal he openly espouses but insists will not be brought about by force, some say.

However, imposing a single-party state now in Zimbabwe could bring on a civil war, other sources say. These analysts say Mugabe appears to be trying to ''reform'' ZAPU by discrediting and isolating its present leadership and hoping a new, more pro-government party will emerge. ''Driving out ZAPU at this stage would seriously damage the political base of the government,'' one source says.

Another effort to isolate Nkomo and his supporters is being played out in a Harare courtroom. Two of the top commanders of the guerrilla forces led by Nkomo before independence in 1980 - Dumiso Dabengwa and Lookout Masuku - are on trial for treason. They are charged with caching arms for a coup. They have pleaded not guilty.

Nkomo was dismissed from the Zimbabwe Cabinet last year for alleged involvement in that coup bid. While no charges have been made against Nkomo, the government said one of the reasons it confiscated his passport recently was to prevent his leaving the country while the treason trial was in progress.

Nkomo joined Mugabe in a coalition government after Zimbabwe achieved independence in 1980. The alliance was never smooth, owing to longstanding friction between the two men on both the personal and political levels, say knowledgeable sources.

The initial reaction of the Mugabe government to the dissidents was low-key and sources say there were efforts at political reconciliation between Nkomo and Mugabe. But traditional tribalism and personal animosity have strained such attempts from the beginning.

The government appears to have embarked on a much tougher military approach since last December, when there was a sharp increase in dissident activity and signs that the dissident movement was getting better organized.

Now, sources say efforts toward political reconciliation appear to have collapsed.

What many analysts find most worrisome about Zimbabwe's spiral of violence is the opportunity it presents for outside influences. Should South Africa be bent on regional destabilization, as many critics charge, Zimbabwe is becoming more vulnerable to such interference, they say.

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