The current luxurious French-made helicopter was grounded due to lack of spare parts following European Union and United States military sanctions imposed in 2000.
The Airforce of Zimbabwe (AFZ), the custodians of the Presidential helicopters, took delivery of the Russian-made Mi6 transport helicopter in November last year and completed successful secret test flights throughout the country.
A Senior military officer at Harare’s Defence House said local pilots and engineers have already been trained to use the Russian helicopter which is now parked at Manyame Airbase ready for use by Mr Mugabe.
Retired Air Vice Marshal Robert Mhlanga who is the Chairman of Mbada Diamonds, a joint operation between government and Grandwell Holdings of South Africa and has been in charge of the project.
Mhlanga, a former Airforce vice-marshal, has close links with Mugabe. He was one of the first black pilots to fly Zimbabwe the dictator since Independence.
The Military source said Mr Mugabe was forced to buy the Russian chopper after failing to procure spare parts and get maintenance and service support from the French manufacturers of his grounded helicopter.
‘The government used to get spare parts through a third country such as Kenya to bust the EU sanctions, but the French discovered this. The current presidential helicopter was now a threat to the safety and security of the president due to unavailability of spare parts and the government had no option but to buy another one,’ said the officer.
Diamonds from Marange had to be mortgaged to buy the Mi6 helicopter as government had no money, said a Mines and mining development official close to the deal.
The current French-made Presidential helicopter was bought in the late 1990’s under controversial circumstances as it was considered too expensive and luxurious for a small economy like Zimbabwe’s.
The helicopter was considered one of the most luxurious in the world, with state of the art facilities including beds, toilets, kitchen and entertainment.
However, despite the acquisition of the new Russian helicopter and subsequent successful test flights, the office of the President has not yet approved the use of the helicopter by Mugabe.
‘The poor safety record of Russian planes is making Mugabe and his CIO’s hesitant to use the helicopter. We do not know when or if he will use the helicopter,’ said the military officer.
For the past few months, Mugabe who is not fond of travelling long distances by road, was driven by road to Mutare in December to officiate at an agricultural function in Mutasa district. He also commandeered a Victoria Falls bound Air Zimbabwe to Gweru where he was officiating at a Zimbabwe Military Academy graduation.
The Mi6, which is manufactured by Mil Moscow helicopter plant, is considered the heaviest and most powerful transport helicopter in the world. Some Mi6 helicopters have a capacity to carry up to 90 passengers and five crew members with a maximum speed of 3000 kilometres per hour and can fly non stop for 800 kilometres.
The European Union and USA imposed military sanctions and other restrictive measures on Zimbabwe’s military and some senior Zanu pf government officials due to state sanctioned gross violations human rights by the country’s security forces and some government officials.
In 2008 alone, the security forces tortured and killed hundreds of opposition supporters in a violent campaign aimed at ensuring Mugabe’s victory in a discredited June 27 presidential run-off, where he was the sole candidate after the withdrawal of Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change the winner of the March 29 presidential election.