Paul Nyakazeya/ Itai Mushekwe
PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe’s trips to Cuba and the United States for the Non-Aligned Movement (Nam) summit and United Nations General Assem
bly last week forced Air Zimbabwe to charter a plane from Portugal for five days to service its overseas routes as the country’s only working long-haul plane had been chartered by the Department of State Protocol to carry the presidential delegation.
Information to hand shows that Air Zimbabwe chartered a Boeing 767-300 from Lisbon from Thursday to Monday this week to service the Harare to London route and the Dubai, Singapore and China routes.
The Department of Protocol falls under the Office of the President. Sources said the Lisbon-based plane was leased for US$2 million for the five-day period. The 767-300, which has a bigger carrying capacity than Air Zimbabwe’s Boeing 767-200, flew to Dubai once and to London three times. The aircraft returned to Portugal after its last flight to London on Monday.
The sources said government chartered the Air Zimbabwe plane to fly President Mugabe to the Nam summit in Havana last Thursday and it stayed in Cuba until Sunday when the presidential delegation flew to New York for the United Nations General Assembly meeting.
Diplomatic sources said the presidential charter flew about 70 people to New York, including a 26-member crew. The crew, diplomats said, had special visas which allowed them to land the plane in New York to drop Mugabe’s party and immediately take off.
Due to US targeted sanctions against President Mugabe and senior officials in his governments, there are visa restrictions on the movement of the Zimbabwe delegation outside the UN base.
From New York, the Air Zimbabwe plane flew to London where it picked up passengers to Harare. Meanwhile, on the same day, the Portuguese-based plane chartered by Air Zimbabwe flew to London with passengers and then back to its homeland.
Sources said Mugabe was not likely to be picked up in America after the UN General Assembly as plans had been made to pick him up either in West Africa or in France using the regular London to Harare flight. This would require a diversion.
Contacted for comment yesterday, Air Zimbabwe spokesman David Mwenga said the cost of the plane lease was below US$2 million. He could not reveal the actual figure.
“That’s not true. I don’t know where you’re getting that amount. For your information, the actual cost is less than half the amount you’re talking about,” said Mwenga yesterday.
Air Zimbabwe under normal circumstances operates two Boeing 767s on its long-haul routes but one of the planes has been grounded in Germany for almost four months due to technical faults. Mugabe travelled with the first lady Grace Mugabe, Foreign Affairs minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi and senior government officials.