Zimbabwe’s army seized control of the country on Wednesday, saying it was removing “criminals” around Robert Mugabe and holding the president for his own safety.
An army spokesman said on state television that Mr Mugabe and his family were being held in a “safe and secure place” while soldiers carried out the operation in Harare, which followed a day of high tension between the army’s commander, General Constantino Chiwenga, and Mr Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF.
“We are targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country,” the army spokesman said. “As soon as we have accomplished our mission we expect that the situation will return to normalcy.”
Witnesses in Harare said soldiers remained on guard outside the state TV building on Wednesday morning and were manning a checkpoint at the airport where flights were running normally.
Army vehicles blocked off a handful of streets in the city centre. State television and radio played music as normal broadcasting was suspended.
The military action came a week after Mr Mugabe, 93, sacked his vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, a veteran of Zimbabwe’s liberation fight, in a move that appeared to put Grace Mugabe on course to succeed her husband. Mr Mnangagwa, an ally of Gen Chiwenga, had fled to South Africa and said he would challenge Mr Mugabe’s rule, whom he claimed was using the ruling Zanu-PF party as his “personal property”.
In a rare press conference on Monday, Gen Chiwenga had said the military would not “hesitate to step in” to “protect the revolution”. Many interpreted his statement as a warning against Mr Mugabe, who has ruled the southern African nation since independence from Britain in 1980.
In the early hours of Wednesday, soldiers arrested Ignatius Chombo, the finance minister who was part of the Zanu-PF faction loyal to Mrs Mugabe, people familiar with developments in Harare said.
Kudzai Chipanga, the head of Zanu-PF’s youth league who had issued a statement attacking Gen Chiwenga on Tuesday, was also detained, the people said.
Military officers and veterans of the liberation war had become increasingly concerned about the rise of Mrs Mugabe in the Zanu-PF during the past three years. A former secretary to the president who is 40 years younger than her husband, Mrs Mugabe has been at the centre of toxic succession battle in Zanu-PF as the president’s health deteriorated.
Dubbed “Gucci Grace” because of her penchant for shopping, many believed the flamboyant first lady wielded growing influence over Mr Mugabe as he became frail, marginalising party veterans.
Her main rival in the succession race had been Mr Mnangagwa, a former security chief who is backed by veterans of the liberation war and is nicknamed “the crocodile”.
Witnesses reported hearing explosions in the northern suburbs of Harare overnight. The US embassy in Harare said it would be closed on Wednesday and warned US citizens to shelter in place.
“The US government encourages all Zimbabweans to approach disputes calmly and peacefully while following democratic, transparent, and constitutional processes for resolving differences,” a state department spokesperson said.
The UK Foreign Office said British nationals should “remain safely at home or in their accommodation until the situation becomes clearer.”