Zimbabwe charges 8 with anti-Mugabe plot

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HARARE, Mar 12 (Reuters) Zimbabwe prosecutors have accused eight people, including an opposition legislator, of seeking to assassinate President Robert Mugabe as part of a plot to destabilise the country, state media reported today.

The eight appeared in court in the eastern city of Mutare yesterday and were charged with ''terrorism'' following last week's reported discovery of an arms cache, the state-run Sunday Mail said.

Zimbabwe's state media have said a total of 16 people were arrested in connection with the arms, which the Sunday Mail said were part of a plot ''to remove the democratically elected government of Zimbabwe from power through banditry.'' The newspaper said prosecutors accused the group of planning to disrupt Mugabe's 82nd birthday celebrations in Mutare last month, where the veteran leader was feted at a municipal stadium by thousands of supporters of his ruling ZANU-PF party.

''The court heard that they had also targeted to kill President Mugabe and several other Zanu-PF officials during the celebrations,'' the newspaper said, adding that the alleged plot was called off after one of the men was arrested on unrelated charges.

Analysts have expressed doubt about the accusations, saying they appear to be geared toward putting new pressure on the fractured opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which is already grappling with its own internal schism.

The Sunday Mail said MDC legislator Giles Mutsekwa and two other party members appeared in court on Saturday along with four policemen and ex-Rhodesian soldier Peter Hitschmann.

The paper said the whereabouts of another MDC member, Roy Bennet, initially reported as among those arrested, were unknown. It did not say if there were any additional suspects who did not appear in court.

CONSPIRACY A state prosecutor told the court that between 2001 and 2006, the eight held several meetings where they conspired to acquire weapons to overthrow Mugabe's government.

Bennett, a former MDC legislator who served 8 months in prison for assaulting a government minister during a debate in parliament in 2004, is alleged to have visited several countries in the region soliciting for donations for the mission. He could not be contacted for comment on Sunday.

Mugabe's government last week said it would physically ''eliminate'' political opponents seeking to overthrow it after reporting that officials had uncovered the arms cache including AK-47 automatic rifles, machineguns, shotguns, pistols, revolvers, tear gas canisters, flares, thousands of rounds of ammunition and a two-way radio communication system.

The weapons were hidden at Hitschmann's home, who claimed to be working for an organisation called the Zimbabwe Freedom Movement coordinated by Mutsekwa and Bennett, authorities said.

The MDC has denied involvement in any military plot against the government. It accuses Mugabe and his ruling party of a campaign to silence critics.

The eight will appear in court again on Wednesday where their lawyers, who complained the group was ill-treated by officials, will apply for their release.

Mugabe, Zimbabwe's sole ruler since independence, regularly brands the MDC a puppet of the West, accusing it of working with his foreign opponents to overthrow his government amid a deepening political and economic crisis.

REUTERS CH BS1624

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