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Blaze death fuels conspiracy theory

Testimony before an inquest into a Zimbabwean power broker's fiery death has ended, leaving the last hours of General Solomon Mujuru's life shrouded in suspicion he was murdered by political rivals.

After three weeks of hearings that have been closely followed in Zimbabwe, Magistrate Walter Chikwanha said that he rejected a request by Gen Mujuru's wife, who is the country's vice president and has attended several inquest sessions, to exhume the general's remains for independent forensic tests.

Gen Mujuru, 66, was burned beyond recognition in a house fire last year.

The former guerrilla leader and army commander used his influence and wealth from a business empire to support his wife against rival factions in President Robert Mugabe's party.

Magistrate Mr Chikwanha did not say when he would report his conclusions after hearing evidence from 37 witnesses.

He can rule the death was accidental or criminal, and in the latter case an investigation would be opened. Mr Chikwanha could also declare an "open verdict", effectively saying he was unable to reach any conclusion.

Lawyers acting for Gen Mujuru's family had questioned a post-mortem by Cuban pathologist Gabriel Alvero, saying he had been in the country for only seven weeks and had a poor command of English.

In a translation of his testimony, Mr Alvero said Gen Mujuru appeared to have died from inhaling smoke. He said he examined the remains of charred limbs and said his findings were inconclusive "considering the state of the body".

Senior South African pathologists said samples of the remains and ashes from the house tested in South Africa showed no sign that explosives or flammable liquids were used to ignite it and create the intense heat that virtually cremated Gen Mujuru. But the samples were sent in plastic bags, not in airtight metal boxes or zipped oven bags as required. The samples could have been compromised, they said.

Gen Mujuru was buried at a state funeral four days after the fire. For the first time at a state funeral, the coffin remained sealed. A record 50,000 mourners attended the popular general's funeral, but few of his supporters and no prominent politicians from Mr Mugabe's party attended inquest hearings.

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