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Pie in the Sky By: Gavin du Venage
The Australian | Tuesday, June 15, 2004


ZIMBABWE has placed a $US200 million ($290 million) order to buy a fleet of Chinese-made fighter jets and military vehicles, even as the African country's depleted food stocks and remaining hard currency run out.

Reports in Zimbabwean media and South Africa's leading business journal, Business Day, say Robert Mugabe's Government has ordered 12 FC-1 fighters. Six are expected to be delivered this week. The purchase makes Zimbabwe one of the biggest customers of China's new-generation jet fighter.

After news of the deal broke, Zimbabwe's Defence Minister, Trust Maphosa, confirmed the order before the country's legislature. He said the purchase was necessary to replace the existing fleet of aircraft, which had been grounded because of Western sanctions.

Once the envy of Africa, the Zimbabwean air force has deteriorated badly since sanctions were imposed by Western countries in protest against the increasingly despotic character of Robert Mugabe's regime.

In 1998, the Zimbabwean air force played a key role in defending the government of Congolese president Laurent Kabila from a coalition of rebel forces during a bloody civil war. Since then its planes, mostly British-made Hawker Hunters, have been grounded due to lack of parts and maintenance.

As relations with the rest of the world have grown colder, Zimbabwe has become increasingly dependent on China, one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with Mr Mugabe's government when it came to power upon independence in 1980.

Since then the Chinese Government has helped build Harare's national sports stadium, hospitals, dams and school dormitories. It has also dug wells and established clothing factories.

Last month, a high-level trade delegation, which included the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party, visited Harare to discuss trade.

Chinese construction companies are also involved in building Mr Mugabe's Saddam Hussein-style mansion in Harare.

Meanwhile, Malaysia's former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, has confirmed that during his rule the country gave Mr Mugabe timber to build his new mansion.

Asked if the gift could be interpreted as a misuse of public funds, Dr Mahathir, who enjoyed a close personal relationship with Mr Mugabe, said yesterday: "No, we give timber to everybody because we want to promote Malaysian timber."

Last year a Chinese state-owned company, the China International Water and Electric Corporation, was awarded a government contract to farm 100,000 hectares in southern Zimbabwe from which white farmers had been driven off.




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