Zimbabwe's army chief threatens to deal with anti-Mugabe protesters

August 5, 2016 5:32 AM EDT

A man with a Zimbabwean flag wrapped around him throws stones at police officers during a protest against President Robert Mugabe's government's handling of the economy in Harare, Zimbabwe August 3, 2016. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

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By MacDonald Dzirutwe

HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe's army commander said on Friday that his soldiers will deal with threats from activists using social media to mobilize anti-government protests, the first time the military has commented on the demonstrations.

Lieutenant-General Valerio Sibanda, the Zimbabwe National Army Commander, said in an interview with state-owned The Herald newspaper that social media activism was cyber warfare that the army would deal with.

Neither the army, which has anchored President Robert Mugabe's 36-year rule, nor the police force have been paid on time since June.

Zimbabwe has seen several protests in recent months with unemployment above 80 percent, dollar shortages worsening as commodity prices slumped and as the region suffers its worst drought for 25 years.

The largest anti-government protest in Zimbabwe in the last decade was organized on social media last month, when a strike by #ThisFlag movement shut down businesses.

"As an army, at our institutions of training, we are already training our officers to be able to deal with this new threat we call cyber warfare where weapons - not necessarily guns but basically information and communication technology - are being used to mobilize people to do the wrong things," Sibanda said.

"The major task we are undertaking now is that of training and preparing the army for whatever eventuality."

Generals in Zimbabwe's military are veterans of the 1970s independence war, and while they publicly support Mugabe and his ZANU-PF, they have divided loyalties over who should succeed Mugabe, who is also under pressure from war veteran allies.

National leaders of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA) last month said Mugabe was responsible for Zimbabwe's economic problems, in a stinging rebuke that laid bare cracks within the ruling ZANU-PF party.

Mugabe has responded by arresting and firing war veterans leaders from ZANU-PF, but his plan to use a splinter group to elect a new ZNLWVA executive was blocked by the High Court.

A court ruling seen by Reuters on Friday said the splinter war veterans group backing the 92-year-old president should not interfere with the ZNLWVA's operations, but he is expected to persist in his bid to push out his former allies.

(Editing by Louise Ireland)

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