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Zimbabwe treason trial seen as signpost on nation's political future

A prominent court case in Zimbabwe is highlighting concern over whether the factionalism rocking the nation can be defused. On trial for treason are seven supporters of opposition leader Joshua Nkomo, including two commanders of his former ZIPRA guerrilla forces, Lookout Masuku and Dumiso Dabengwa.

Many view the trial - hinged to allegations that those charged sought to overthrow the government - and the eventual verdict as an signpost for the future of Zimbabwe.

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Will the trial inflame the ethnic enmity between Nkomo's supporters and those of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe? Or might the government's case be strong enough to reduce tensions and put to rest suspicions that the men were arrested wrongly in a political move by Mugabe to discredit opponents?

Whatever the outcome, concern is mounting that the dissidents of western Zimbabwe and the nation's army are locked in a dangerous spiral of violence. Deaths on both sides are mounting, creating political instability and diverting government attention and resources from growing economic problems.

The dissident activity among the Ndebele-speaking black minority of western Zimbabwe rose in early '82 when their political leader, Joshua Nkomo, was sacked from the Cabinet. The government alleged, and has repeated in the new trial, that Nkomo was aware that arms were being stockpiled on farms he and other members of his party controlled in preparation for a bid to seize power.

Nkomo himself has not been arrested and has publicly repudiated the dissidents, although the government and pro-government press have publicly disgraced him.

The chief evidence so far introduced by the state in the trial is a letter allegedly written by Dabengwa to the KGB in Moscow in 1980 - just after Zimbabwe's independence - asking for aid in ''our next struggle.''

The state says this next struggle was an attempt to overthrow the government. But Dabengwa, who is pleading not guilty along with the others, claims the reference was to a struggle against subversive activities by foreign secret services.

Through the years of guerrilla war against the white government of former Rhodesia, Nkomo's forces received most of their material support from the Soviet Union. Mugabe's forces were supported by China.

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Meanwhile, though the level of conflict between government forces and dissidents is rising, there are signs of efforts to reach a political solution. Mugabe and Nkomo reportedly have met privately in recent months in what analysts regard as a bid for some form of reconciliation. But there are no public signs of progress.

The most spectacular act by the dissidents is the July 1982 kidnaping of six foreign tourists in western Zimbabwe. The fathers of the two American kidnap victims (the other victims were two Australians and two Britons) recently came to Zimbabwe, where they distributed posters asking for the release of the six and offering to pay the legal costs of the trial of Dabengwa and Masuku. The dissidents had demanded the release of Dabengwa and Masuku at the time of the kidnapping.

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