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By Lebo Nkatazo

ZIMBABWE'S military and intelligence services have put down an alleged coup plot against President Robert Mugabe, state prosecutors said.

At least seven serving and retired middle and lower rank officers from the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) have been charged with treason.

The arrested men, rounded up in stages beginning May 29, have twice appeared in secret court sittings in which journalists and their families were barred. The matter has been referred to the High Court.

The British Daily Telegraph newspaper, which said it had seen the police charge sheet, reports that the men were planning a coup d'etat which would have culminated in the installation of Rural Housing Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa as Mugabe's replacement.

Prosecutors accuse Albert Mugove Matapo, 40, of recruiting six others "who conspired to plot a coup to overthrow the Zimbabwe government", according to court documents quoted by the Telegraph.

Matapo, it is alleged, wanted to "recruit as many soldiers as possible to take over the government and all camps and be in control of the nation after which he will announce to the nation that he was in control of government and would invite Minister Mnangagwa and service chiefs to form a government".

Another former army officer, Albert Rugowe, is accused of conspiring with his co-accused and recruiting members of the army, the air force and the police "to whom he gave some tasks in preparation of a coup".

Others named are serving officers, among them Capt Shepherd Maromo and Olivine Morale, whose rank and age have not yet been established.

Military sources in Harare told New that the alleged plotters had contacted several western countries to "sound them out" if they would support a coup.

A source said: "They presented them with a hypothetical situation, and asked if they would support it if it happened.

"The general feedback was that the western countries would publicly condemn the coup and privately support it only if it would restore democracy in Zimbabwe."

Few details have emerged of the actual plot, but sources said the plan was to seize control of State House and Mugabe's Borrowdale residence through an air and ground assault, arresting some of Mugabe's loyalists in the process.

The coup was tentatively set for June 15, the pay day for military and police officers.

"The coup was primed to take place when soldiers are generally more concerned with their pay and shopping with their families," said the source.

A political commentator, who asked not to be identified for his own security, said: "This is the first credible attempt of a military overthrow of Mugabe's government. It was designed and calculated to send a chill down his political spine, and it did."

The commentator said British diplomats have been briefing in recent weeks that Zimbabwe's economic crisis, largely seen as the biggest threat to Mugabe's rule, had failed to bring his regime down.

"The British have been saying that the view that the economy is the biggest opposition to Mugabe is not entirely correct, arguing instead that only human beings can challenge Mugabe's authority, and those human beings are in the military -- mainly middle or lower rank officers," he said.

The commentator observed that third world military coups were usually staged by lower and middle rank officers.

He said: "The typical trend in third world countries is that low ranking officers, usually captains, declare themselves generals and go on to lead a coup. This is what we nearly saw in Kenya in 1982, and in Zambia where Captain Stephen Lungu (also known as Solo) tried to overthrow the government in 1997.

"The only mistake Solo did was to try and stage a coup while drunk. They started playing reggae on state radio and TV until soldiers loyal to the government regrouped and overran them."

The commentator said President Mugabe was alarmed at the plot.

"The significance of this plot is the message, not the result," he said. "In Zambia's case, the coup plot was the beginning of the collapse of Chiluba's government. When a government is nearly overthrown by some drunk soldiers, you know it's time is up."

Zimbabwe's state media has not reported the alleged attempted coup, and President Mugabe was in Libya this week.

Lawyer Charles Warara, of Warara and Associates, told a Zimbabwean newspaper that he was representing the alleged plotters.

"Yes, we can confirm that we are handling that matter," he told the Financial Gazette newspaper on Thursday. "We are making every effort to secure their freedom."

He said he had no information that there were any serving soldiers who had been arrested. "But some of the arrested men have a background in the army," he said.

State Security Minister Didymus Mutasa has feigned ignorance of the alleged plot, while Defence Minister Sydney Sekeramayi was reported to be out of the country -- possibly as part of Mugabe's delegation to Libya.

Zimbabwe is in the throes of its worst economic crisis in history, with official inflation pegged at 3714 percent.

President Mugabe has typically crushed opposition to his rule with force. Leading opposition officials have been jailed and tortured in police custody, sparking international condemnation and isolation of Mugabe's regime.


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