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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Mugabe says army will "pull trigger" on opponents

HARARE, Aug 15 (Reuters) - President Robert Mugabe warned critics on Tuesday that Zimbabwe's army stood ready to "pull the trigger" against anyone seeking to topple him as a mounting political and economic crisis raises fears of unrest.

Opposition leaders this year called for street protests to end Mugabe's long rule, which they say has reduced a country once seen one of the most promising in Africa to an economic basket-case.

But the protests have yet to begin -- leaving political observers wondering if Zimbabweans are simply too cowed to take their grievances to the street.

Mugabe, speaking at a rally to mark the annual Defence Forces day, indicated those fears might be justified.

"We want to remind those who might harbour any plans of turning against the government: be warned, we have armed men and women who can pull the trigger," the 82-year-old leader said, departing from his prepared text to deliver his warning in the local Shona language.

Zimbabwe suffers from the world's highest inflation rate of around 1,000 percent, unemployment above 70 percent and shortages of fuel, food and foreign exchange -- leaving most ordinary Zimbabweans reeling and the economy in freefall.

But the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which has come closest to unseating Mugabe, has been weakened by internal squabbles and a split last October over participation in Senate elections.

Mugabe has sent police and security troops to crush previous mass protests, most recently in 2003.

On Tuesday he hinted the military may have some new tricks up its sleeve thanks to his "Look East" policy which encourages friendly relations with Asian nations such as China.

"The defence forces have benefited from government's Look East policy through which they have not only acquired new equipment but also learned new military strategies," Mugabe said in his prepared speech.

Zimbabwe has received military equipment including trainer jets and trucks from China, and Mugabe said planners were coming up with other ways to get around the country's increasingly precarious economic and political situation.

"In an effort to limit the reliance on the foreign market where some Western suppliers have adopted the British-led illegal sanctions against us, the defence forces embarked on a programme to substitute some of the foreign-sourced spare parts with locally manufactured ones," he said.

Mugabe, Zimbabwe's only leader since independence from Britain in 1980, denies mismanaging the economy and blames Zimbabwe's woes on local and foreign foes opposed to his policy of seizing white-owned farms to give to landless blacks.

His intolerance of criticism has resulted in laws which bar ordinary citizens from disparaging the president.

In the latest case of these laws being invoked, a Zimbabwe businessman was arrested over the weekend for "abusing" Mugabe in public. He is expected to appear in court on Wednesday where a conviction could bring up to two years in jail, although in most cases sentences are suspended.
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