Zimbabwe: Mystery deepens around general's death

AP News
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Posted: Jan 27, 2012 10:07 AM
Zimbabwe: Mystery deepens around general's death

A general in Zimbabwe burned beyond recognition in flames a police officer says didn't seem quite like other fires. Questions over possible arson. And fire trucks arriving without water.

As witness after witness testifies in the inquest into the death of Gen. Solomon Mujuru, the mystery has deepened around what happened in the last hours of a man who was power broker in President Robert Mugabe's divided party and the husband of the nation's vice president.

It is not clear when the proceedings that began on Jan. 16 will conclude, but it's far from sure even after they've ended whether Zimbabweans will ever know whether the death was an accident.

On Friday, presiding magistrate Walter Chikwanha said the family submitted a request for independent forensic experts to review the state's evidence. The family also asked if the general's remains could be exhumed if the state evidence is inadequate, he said.

Mujuru received a hero's burial at a national shrine outside Harare dedicated to politicians of Mugabe's party and fallen guerrillas in the bush war that led to independence in 1980. No interference at the shrine would likely be tolerated.

Mujuru's death last year intensified infighting in Mugabe's party, where the general was a powerful figure who used his military, political and business connections to promote his wife's battle for supremacy.

His widow, Joice Mujuru, has attended most sessions of the inquest dressed in black. She has hired private attorneys to question witnesses called by the state and to examine forensic reports. Soon after Mujuru's death at age 66, she told mourners she could not understand why the former army commander and veteran guerrilla leader did not escape from the fire. The farmhouse of brick and stone had a fire-resistant roof, large windows and exit doors.

During testimony Thursday, a senior power company official said no electrical fault could have caused the fire that killed Mujuru at his farmhouse outside Harare. Chief firefighter Clever Mafoti said Wednesday that two fires broke out that night at the farmhouse, and that if an electrical fire was discounted, arson could not be ruled out.

Reports first circulated that a candle started the intense blaze, but that has since been rejected as unlikely.

Police officer Clatwell Garisai has told presiding magistrate Chikwanha rescuers dumped 10 buckets of water to douse flames on the general's remains that were "different in color from the flames in the surrounding area." The police officer testified he saw "bluish flames" rising from the general's body.

State attorneys have submitted other testimony that Mujuru, widely known as a heavy drinker, may have been drunk. He was said also to have stored agricultural chemicals in the house.

Mujuru, a former guerrilla leader and Zimbabwe army commander, was known to carry firearms. Police say 15 weapons were found damaged by fire in the house, including his pistols and an assault rifle.

Mujuru's remains were buried Aug. 20 at a state funeral in Harare. For the first time at a state funeral, the coffin was sealed.

Crispen Makedenge, a police inspector, said Thursday the remains were little more than soot. They were not positively identified as Mujuru's by DNA tests in South Africa until at least three weeks after the funeral, Makedenge said.

Mafoti, the firefighter, said his team arrived late at the farmhouse, located some 60 kilometers (35 miles) southwest of Harare, and without water because their fire trucks' water tanks leaked.

"It is not normal to go to a scene without water, but we were ill-prepared," he said.

Police guarding the house, who have admitted sleeping on duty, said the local police station did not have a vehicle to send help.

Public and emergency services have been hard hit in the nation's decade-long economic crisis. The nation also suffers daily water and power outages.

The hearing is expected to continue through next week.