International desk – The army has seized control in Zimbabwe but has said President Robert Mugabe, in power since 1980, is safe, media reports said on Wednesday.
After seizing state TV, an army spokesman announced it was targeting people close to Mugabe who had caused “social and economic suffering”.
The move came after Mugabe sacked his deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, in favour of his wife, Grace, according to BBC a report.
Heavy gun and artillery fire could be heard in northern parts of the capital Harare early on Wednesday.
A statement read out by a general on air denied it was a coup. There was no immediate word from the president himself. Messages appeared on an unverified Twitter account associated with the ruling Zanu-PF party saying he had been detained.
CNN reported that political turmoil escalated in Zimbabwe overnight, raising the question of whether 93-year-old President Mugabe remains in control of the country he’s ruled for almost four decades — or if he’s been overthrown in a military coup.
As soldiers patrolled the streets, a military spokesman, in a live speech at 4 a.m. local time on state broadcaster ZBC, denied the country was in the grip of a coup, and announced Mugabe and his family were “safe.”
“To both our people and the world beyond our borders, we wish to make it abundantly clear that this is not a military takeover of government,” Major General S.B. Moyo said.
“What the Zimbabwe Defense Forces is doing is to pacify a degenerating political, social and economic situation in our country, which if not addressed may result in a violent conflict,” he said.
He urged the public to remain calm but “limit unnecessary movement”.
In the hours before the announcement, eyewitnesses reported seeing around 100 troops on the streets of downtown Harare.
The sudden appearance of soldiers in the capital comes amid rising political tensions in the wake of Mugabe’s shock sacking of his deputy, powerful Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, reported the US broadcaster.
The military has been careful not to call their efforts a coup, but that appears to be what is actually unfolding, observers say.
“This a coup by any other name,” Alex Magaisa, a former political aide to ex-Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, said. “They might be trying to give a fig leaf to the notion that President Mugabe is still the leader. But de facto they are obviously the military force.”
A Harare resident, who wished not to be named for security reasons, described the city as “very quiet” Wednesday, though shops were open and buses and taxis appeared to be running normally.
“Many people have just stayed home,” she said. Police road blocks were in their usual spots and police were “acting normally.”
The resident added that there was a sense of “excitement in the air” and that social media was humming over what might be happening.
Mnangagwa had previously been considered most likely to succeed Mugabe if the president stepped down or died in office. His sudden dismissal cleared the way for 93-year-old Mugabe to appoint his wife, Grace, to the position, prompting widespread discontent among formerly loyalist supporters.
Grace Mugabe has drawn the ire of Zimbabweans for appearing to be out of touch. She’s been nicknamed “Gucci Grace” for her exorbitant shopping sprees abroad, trips which stand in stark contrast to the lives of those hit hard by the country’s massive inflation and debt burdens.
Former deputy Mnangagwa enjoys strong support among the country’s military and security establishment. A celebrated freedom fighter in the country’s liberation wars, the 75-year-old has since gone into hiding and his whereabouts are unknown.
In the broadcast, Moyo spoke of targeting “criminals” around the president who are “committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice.”
He also said the situation in the country “has moved to another level” and that he wished to assure the nation Mugabe and his family are safe and their security is “guaranteed.”
“As soon as we accomplish our mission we expect situation to return to normalcy,” Moyo said.
Chris Mutsvanga, a Mnangagwa ally who heads the influential Zimbabwe War Veterans’ Association, and called the move a “bloodless coup” in a statement praising the military.
“We salute the patrIotic and gallant forces of the Zimbabwe for once again coming to the decisive rescue of the nation,” the statement said.
“The populace has long suffered under a self saving dictatorship that had become an oligarch with dynastic delusions.”
Mutsvanga’s group has been historically loyal to Mugabe but it is fiercely critical of Grace Mugabe, who is younger and does not have any connection to the efforts to liberate Zimbabwe.