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Zimbabwe army commander to retire

Zvinavashe could go into full-time politics and may run in a parliamentary by-election for a vacancy created by the death of vice-president Simon Muzenda in September, analysts said.

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HARARE, Zimbabwe (Reuters) -- Zimbabwe's army commander, an independence war hero and one of President Robert Mugabe's key hardline allies, is due to retire next month after nearly a decade in office, government officials said on Tuesday.

General Vitalis Zvinavashe, popularly known by his guerrilla name "Fox-Gava," stirred controversy ahead of elections last year by saying the security forces would never allow "anyone opposed to the ideals of the 1970s Liberation War" to come to power.

It was a threat clearly aimed at opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Mugabe denies that the presidential elections, criticised by Western governments as flawed, were rigged.

Appointed head of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) in 1994, Zvinavashe, 60, was for years also a member of the politburo, the powerful inner-cabinet of Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party.

One government and ZANU-PF official said the general, for whom Mugabe hosted a farewell party at his State House residence on Monday, had indicated that he was "available for any state and party duties" but had not spelled out any specific plans.

Political analysts said Zvinavashe's departure from the army would not change the character of the military whose top brass is chiefly composed of war veterans fiercely loyal to ZANU-PF.

Zvinavashe could go into full-time politics and may run in a parliamentary by-election for a vacancy created by the death of vice-president Simon Muzenda in September, analysts said.

Zvinavashe was not available for comment on Tuesday.

"Black Jesus" in the wings

Government sources say Zvinavashe's army post is likely to be filled by Air Marshall Perence Shiri, a tough soldier who operated under the name "Black Jesus" during the 1970s bush war.

Shiri led a crack brigade which crushed an armed rebellion in Zimbabwe's Matabeleland in the 1980s, a campaign which some human rights groups say left about 20,000 civilians dead.

At Zvinavashe's farewell party, Mugabe described the quiet and reclusive general as a dependable officer and political ally. "Never a coward, never afraid, never refusing a mission."

Analysts said Mugabe could decide to deploy Zvinavashe and former air force chief Josiah Tungamirai to manage ZANU-PF affairs in the faction-ridden but important southern Masvingo province ahead of parliamentary elections in 2005.

"Both Zvinavashe and Tungamirai have the prestige that Mugabe needs to stabilise his party especially during debate over his possible successor, and I think that's the role they are going to be playing," said Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of the Harare-based political pressure group, the National Constitutional Assembly.

Earlier this year, Zvinavashe denied media reports that he and Speaker of Parliament Emmerson Mnangagwa, regarded by many as Mugabe's preferred successor, had approached Tsvangirai to work out an honourable exit plan for Mugabe.

Mugabe, in power since independence in 1980, is struggling with a severe economic crisis blamed on government mismanagement and his controversial political and economic policies, including his seizures of white-owned farms for black resettlement.

A United Nations report named Zvinavashe as one of the African figures who profited from the plunder of Democratic Republic of Congo's diamond riches in a war in which Zimbabwe deployed thousands of troops in support of Kinshasa.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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