Zimbabwe's army confirmed on Wednesday that it has seized control in what it described as a targeted assault on "criminals" surrounding President Robert Mugabe. The military said Mugabe and his family are "safe and sound," but the ruling party accused the army chief of "treasonous conduct."
It was not immediately clear whether the takeover amounted to a purge or a putsch — simply getting rid of some members of the government or toppling Mugabe, 93, altogether.
Armored vehicles and soldiers patrolled streets in the capital, Harare, amid loud explosions. Soldiers reportedly took control of the headquarters of the national broadcaster, ZBC, and an army spokesman said on air "this is not a military takeover."
"We are only targeting criminals around [Mugabe], who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country, in order to bring them to justice," according to the statement.
In the broadcast, the spokesman said the military expected "normalcy" to return as soon as the army had completed its "mission."
The country's war veterans' association tells The Associated Press that the military's move amounted to "a bloodless correction of [a] gross abuse of power."
According to the AP, "It was not clear where [President Robert] Mugabe and his wife were early Wednesday. 'Their security is guaranteed,' the army statement said. The president reportedly attended a weekly Cabinet meeting Tuesday."
AP quotes the military spokesman as saying the president is "safe and sound" and the "army is targeting criminals around him," but "any provocation 'will be met with an appropriate response.'
Mugabe's governing ZANU-PF party issued a stiff warning to the army commander, Gen. Constantino Chiwenga, saying Zimbabwe would not succumb to military pressure.
Chiwenga made an unprecedented announcement Monday that the army was prepared to intervene to halt party infighting and the purging of veterans who fought Zimbabwe's independence war.
Chiwenga made the statement a week after Mugabe fired longtime vice president and war vet Emmerson Mnangagwa, accusing him of disloyalty and disrespect. Mnangagwa had been tipped as a likely successor to the 93-year-old leader, but fell out with the president's powerful wife. His removal is widely perceived as a prelude to Mugabe possibly promoting the politically ambitious first lady, Grace Mugabe, to one of two vice presidential posts.
For the first time since independence 37 years ago, Zimbabwe is witnessing a very public rift between the military and Mugabe. He is the world's oldest head-of-state, who's been in office since the end of white minority rule in 1980, with the military perceived as a pillar of his power.
Mugabe is widely viewed as a political survivor, but the battle to succeed him has turned toxic, and the latest casualty is Mnangagwa.