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Harare Orders More Jets From China; Opposition Objects

Though strapped financially and experiencing critical food and fuel shortages, Harare is purchasing six K-8 fighter training jets from China, doubling the size of its fleet of the aircraft following last year's acquisition of six of the limited-firepower planes.

According to the state-run Herald newspaper, Defense Secretary Trust Maphosa told Parliament on Tuesday that the K-8 jets, jointly manufactured by China and Pakistan, would be delivered in about two months. Maphosa did not disclose what Zimbabwe would be paying, but military experts said the jets normally fetch US$20 million.

Though the K-8 (the Chinese domestic model is called the JL-8) does not have fixed weapons, but its four under-wing pylons can carry 23mm cannon pods, unguided rockets, 250 kilogram bombs and short-range air-to-air missiles.

Zimbabwe’s ageing fleet of British-made Tornado and Hawk fighters has largely been grounded of late because Western sanctions have blocked Harare from buying spare parts to keep them on the flight line. President Robert Mugabe acknowledged on the country's Defence Forces Day holiday August 15 that U.S., British and European sanctions have impaired the capabilities of the nation's armed forces.

But he said on that occasion that Zimbabwe would obtain other defense technology through its "Look East" policy of strategic alignment with Asian partners.

The fighter deal drew fire from the political opposition. Defense spokesman Giles Mutsekwa of the Movement for Democratic Change faction led by Morgan Tsvangirai, a member of the parliamentary defense committee, told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe the acquisition was a poor use of resources.

For a specialist view of the jet deal, Zulu turned to defense analyst Helmoed-Romer Heitman of Janes Defense Weekly, based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The opposition was not only opposed to the jet purchase on grounds that the country has more pressing needs like feeding its people, but took issue as well with the deal's conclusion without disclosure to parliament - beyond the ruling party caucus.

Reporter Carole Gombakomba asked National Constitutional Assembly Chairman Lovemore Madhuku for his view on what the secrecy shrouding the deal indicated about parliament and the democratic process in Zimbabwe.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...