Mozambican rebels have blown up a section of the vital pipeline supplying oil-starved Zimbabwe, threatening to worsen the country's severe fuel shortage, reliable sources said today.
Just days before the 188-mile pipeline from the Mozambican port of Beira to Mutare in eastern Zimbabwe was scheduled to reopen after repairs to petroleum tanks that were sabotaged a month ago, rebels blew a hole in the line last night, according to the sources.
Government and oil industry officials refused to comment.
The attack, believed to be by rebels of the Mozambican National Resistance, occurred at Maforga, about the halfway point of the pipeline in Mozambique.
The extent of damage was not made known.
Zimbabwe has been suffering an acute fuel shortage since saboteurs blew up 34 oil storage tanks at the head of the pipeline in Beira.
Mozambique blamed South African forces while the Mozambique National Resistance Movement, allegedly supported by Pretoria, claimed responsibility.
Fuel must now be rerouted by rail through South Africa, where it is subject to slowdowns.
Zimbabwe's energy minister, Simba Makoni, in a remark aimed at South Africa, has said there is no problem in procuring petroleum but "we can't transport it because our 'friends' keep disrupting our transport routes."
Many African countries suffer fuel shortages, usually because of lack of foreign exchange to pay for the oil, but Zimbabwe's problem is different since it is a product of the struggle for black majority rule in southern Africa.
Supplies to garages in Zimbabwe have been cut by more than 40 percent, causing panic buying by motorists who wait in long lines to get as little as two gallons of gasoline.
In Mutare last week few cars were on the road as most were parked in long double lines at gas stations, despite notices that no fuel would be sold for a week, until after the New Year's holiday.
In the country's four largest cities motorists are supposed to register their vehicles at one station and then buy fuel only there, but so far the system has not reduced the long lines.
Makoni is in Mozambique for talks on the reopening of the pipeline, which can supply Zimbabwe's needs in 10 to 12 days of pumping a month when fully operational.
The line was closed for 17 years after Rhodesia illegally declared independence from Britain in 1965 to preserve white rule. The long guerrilla war that resulted ended in 1980 with an elected black-majority government for the country, which was renamed Zimbabwe.
The reopening of the pipeline last year was intended to end the country's dependence on white-ruled South Africa for its oil, but the attacks on the pipeline, fuel tanks and pumping stations have forced Zimbabwe once more to transport its fuel by rail through South Africa.
Zimbabwe has stationed about 2,000 troops along the pipeline in Mozambique to help protect the vital facility, but so far the attacks by the resistance movement appear to have gone on unabated.
The resistance movement has threatened to carry the war against Mozambican President Samora Machel's Marxist government across the border to Zimbabwe. South Africa wants Zimbabwe to enter into a long-term fuel supply contract and has offered to hold talks at the ministerial level--to demonstrate South Africa's importance to Zimbabwe's economy.
But Prime Minister Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has refused, saying his country would hold talks only at a lower level.
Relations between Zimbabwe and South Africa have been chilly, with Mugabe charging last summer that South African soldiers had crossed the border and clashed with Zimbabwean soldiers in what he described as the beginning of a destabilization campaign against his government.
A government spokesman here today denied persistent reports that Makoni had signed a fuel supply agreement with a South African cabinet minister in Botswana, saying that no such talks had been held or any agreement signed.