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Air Zimbabwe Suspends Flights to S. Africa as Gatwick Crisis Continues

  • Gibbs Dube

Among the Zimbabweans distraught over being stranded at Gatwick International Airport since Monday was a woman who was taking her husband’s body home for burial in the homeland

Air Zimbabwe has suspended flights to South Africa fearing that creditors will impound its aircraft over unpaid bills while scores of the airline's passengers remained stranded at London’s Gatwick International Airport four days after the seizure of a plane there.

Among the Zimbabweans distraught over being stranded at Gatwick since Monday was a woman who was taking her husband’s body home for burial in the homeland.

Aviation sources said flights from Harare and Bulawayo to Johannesburg have been scrubbed, leaving almost 130 passengers stranded in those two major cities and the northwest resort town of Victoria Falls.

They said the suspension of flights followed threats by a South African ground handling firm, Bid Air Services, to seize Air Zimbabwe planes over an unpaid US$500,000 bill.

The company grounded an Air Zimbabwe Boeing liner two weeks ago and released it only after terms for payment had been negotiated.

Air Zimbabwe Chairman Jonathan Kadzura declined to comment on the crisis.

Economic commentator Rejoice Ngwenya said the time has come for the government to pull the plug on the money-losing parastatal. "The unity government should simply dump the national airline for the benefit of Zimbabweans," Ngwenya said.

Air Zimbabwe General Manager for Europe David Mwenga said many passengers remain at Gatwick while the airline tries to raise money to pay the US supplier.

Reached at his firm's headquarters in Gaithersburg, Maryland, outside Washington, American General Supplies Marketing Director Kenneth Conor said partial payments have been made but the plane won't be released until the debt is paid in full.

Conor said about US$500,000 remained to be paid.

From London, passenger representative Ignatius Mwariwangu said the airline has failed to communicate and at times lied to the stranded travelers ”To pay someone 4,000 pounds then you just let it go is not an easy option," Mwariwangu said.

Radio personality Ezra Sibanda, also a spokesman for the stranded passengers, said some irate Zimbabweans are now threatening to take over the carrier’s offices in London if the situation is not resolved with reimbursement or a flight home.

“We will never move and we will take over that office if Air Zimbabwe does not refund us our money," Sibanda declared.

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