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How Rhodesians forced Zapu to abandon its 'Operation Zero Hour'

15 Jan 2015 at 11:27hrs | Views

A top Zipra intelligence officer who turned Rhodesian spy after his capture by the Selous Scouts allegedly gave the enemy vital information that forced Zapu to abandon its plans to invade the country in 1978. This is revealed in intelligence documents still in possession of some of the former Rhodesian special forces and Selous Scouts who took part in raids on Zipra camps in Zambia between 1978 and 1979.

Its on record that Zapu had planned to invade Rhodesia by deploying its regular army which was based in camps outside the Zambian capital, Lusaka. The planned invasion had the blessings of Zapu's main backers, the Russians and the Cubans who had sent military advisors to work with Zipra's conventional forces.

The invasion of Rhodesia which was code-named "Operation Zero Hour" came after a meeting between Zapu leader and Zipra supreme commander, Joshua Nkomo and Nikolai Podgomy, chairman of the presidium of the Supreme Soviet in 1977.

According to the Rhodesian military documents, most of the Zapu soldiers who were to take part in the invasion had been trained in camps in Luena in eastern Angola. The Rhodesians were given this information by a turned Zipra intelligence officer identified as Elliot Sibanda or Black Swine.

The Russians had hoped to spread their influence in southern Africa if the military take over had been successful. During the liberation war, Zapu trained both regular soldiers and guerrilla fighters. In 1980, the regular soldiers were based at their camp at Gwayi in northern Matabeleland.

The Russians, according to the information supplied by the captured Zipra officer, had advised Nkomo to boycott the Lancaster House talks in London. The talks were held in 1979 and eventually led to ceasefire and then elections which were won by Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party.

The Russians were sure the elections would be rigged by the British in favour of their preferred candidate. The Russians had already done the same in Angola where they and the Cubans were backing Augustino Neto's MPLA army which was fighting against Jonas Savimbi's Unita and the South African Defence Force (SADF).

The capture of Sibanda by the Selous Scouts was dramatic. After receiving intelligence from the Special Branch, Rhodesia's equivalent to America's FBI, the Selous Scouts ambushed a Zipra convoy transferring new vehicles from Botswana to Zambia. The ambush, according to documents in possession of former soldiers, was set near the border between Botswana and Zambia.

The operation was to capture or kill Dumiso Dabengwa who was the head of Zapu's intelligence organization and his deputy, Elliot Sibanda who was popularly known in exile as Black Swine. The Rhodesians said Dabengwa managed to escape during the ambush but Sibanda was not so lucky.

He was captured after he was seriously injured during the fire-fight. After his capture, Black Swine was asked if he wanted to die a Zapu hero or live to see his grand children grow. The terrified Zipra officer allegedly chose to live. The Rhodesians then agreed to save his life on condition that he became their spy or Askari - as the South African military described turned guerrillas.

It was the Black Swine who disclosed the Zipra invasion plans to the Rhodesians leading to raids on guerrilla camps in Zambia. But the spy turned Zipra man avoided revealing the names of the Zipra patrol that shot down two Rhodesian Viscount planes - Hunyani and Munyati in 1978 and 1979.

Black Swine allegedly told the Rhodesians that the operation to invade the country was headed by Colonel Vladimir Buchiyev of the KGB. Cuban instructors had also arrived in Lusaka from Angola to direct the operation for a military take over. In Cape Town, I met some of the former members of the Rhodesian Light Infantry who took part in the cross border raids on Zipra camps.

During our open discussion about the war, they said Britain and America would have intervened to save Rhodesia from falling into the hands of what they called "Communists." The US had already agreed to fund some of Unita's war efforts in Angola. This was during the dangerous days of the Cold War.

In Mozambique, Zanu leaders were getting worried about Zapu's plans for a military take over. But the Rhodesians say Mugabe was powerless to stop Zapu and the Russians from going ahead with the plan. The spy turned Zipra officer allegedly revealed that Soviet battle tanks and MIG fighter planes had been delivered to Zapu's regular soldiers in Angola.

The SAM-7,14.5 AA and ground to air missile system was made available to Zipra. At this time, Zipra had deployed small units of its guerrillas inside Rhodesia to keep the enemy occupied while preparing for full scale invasion. Zipra's plan was to launch a full scale invasion with heavy armour and air support provided by the Cubans.

The Libyans were drafted in to transport the regular soldiers to the border areas.

The plan was to start the invasion from Chirundu to divert Rhodesian forces east while the main force crossed at Msuna west of Lake Kariba and Victoria Falls and then move to take Wankie declaring the coal mining town the interim capital. Matabeleland was the first target of the Zipra invasion.

This information is provided by the former Rhodesians with help from their impimpi "spies" from within Zipra. But sources say there were divisions within Zapu as the top leadership was against dividing the country along regional and ethnic lines. Other Zapu leaders were worried about international recognition if the Soviets and Cubans had to assist Zapu take over the country.

What would have happened had the plan succeeded?

The British and the Americans were going to intervene too and fight the Zapu and Russian invaders creating a crisis of major proportions. The British would not have allowed their former colony to be taken over by the Russians. The Rhodesian informants in Zapu estimated that Zipra had over 20 000 trained soldiers in Zambia and Angola. Prime Minister Ian Smith was briefed of the Zipra threat and raids on guerrilla camps were sanctioned.

The first training camp to be hit by the Rhodesians was Mulungushi about 100 km east of Lusaka and the FC camp just outside the capital. The Rhodesians believe the raids disrupted Zipra's military invasion of the country followed by pressure on the Russians and Cubans to abandon their plans.

Former Zapu leaders including Dabengwa have not spoken openly about their plans to invade Rhodesia during the war. Its also not known as to what happened to Sibanda who allegedly supplied information to the Rhodesians about Zapu's military takeover of the country after his capture by the Selous Scouts.

In Cape Town the former Rhodesian soldiers and their families still celebrate their so called successes against guerrillas during the war. They also meet every year to remember those who died when Zipra shot down Viscount Hunyani and Munyati. The Viscount ceremonies that usually take place in Pretoria are not open to blacks.

After his election victory in 1980 Mugabe's government refused the Russians permission to open an embassy in Harare because of their unwavering support for Zapu. Mugabe was on the verge of starting a fresh war against Zapu and its armed wing, Zipra.

The rest is history.

Source - Thabo Kunene
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