Shortly after 9 p.m. last Monday, black workers at Salisbury’s massive oil storage complex heard loud and repeated bursts of “rat-a-ta-tat,” then “whoosh.” Luckily, their instincts told
them to run, for seconds later several of the giant tanks erupted into massive clouds of orange flames. The fire—described by one witness as “a gigantic eternal flame”—raged on through Fri-
day, destroying 22 tanks of gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel—at least 17 million gallons worth $18 million.
Military authorities later admitted there was “evidence of guerrilla involvement.” What they did not say was that the hit amounted to the boldest attack ever on a strategic site, the most devastating on an urban centre, in the increasingly bitter six-year-old war. The attack, leaving a layer of black soot on everything in the city, immediately weakened morale. Long lines formed early the next day in front of gas stations as motorists panicked over a shortage. Or rather, a new shortage, since oil is Rhodesia’s most vital import. Without it the troubled territory could not have survived a decade of United Nations sanctions. As it is, Rhodesia has had to purchase fuel through a complex and expensive underground network. All petroleum supplies for both industrial and private use have been tightly rationed for years.
The attack led to two new and haunting fears in Rhodesia. Militarily, guerrillas have now penetrated so deeply that they apparently can march into the heart of the capital, blast away, then disappear. Despite immediate military follow-up operations, no suspects have as yet been arrested. Then, the single most vital material for economic survival has been seriously depleted, and will not easily be replaced.
On top of that, last week the UN General Assembly recommended wider economic sanctions against Rhodesia and an oil embargo against South Africa, which supplies gasoline to the Rhodesians. And South Africa gets most of its oil from Iran, where strikers are intermittently squeezing production down to a comparative dribble. All in all, it was a devastating week for Rhodesia, leaving an ominous feeling of worse to come.
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