Zimbabwe’s military has stormed the country’s national broadcaster’s studios to declare it is ‘targeting criminals’ amid fears of a coup after reports of explosions and gunfire in the capital.
The military read a statement on live TV claiming this not ‘a military takeover of government’ and President Robert Mugabe was safe.
The US Embassy in Zimbabwe had ordered employees and US citizens in the African nation to take cover and seek shelter on Tuesday after gunfire was heard near the home of the 93-year-old president, sparking fears of an armed military take over.
Soldiers stormed the headquarters of state broadcaster ZBC in the early hours of Wednesday, two members of staff and a human rights worker told Reuters, as staff complained they were manhandled by the military members.
After taking control of the station, the military released a statement which denied a coup was underway, adding that Mugabe and his family were ‘safe and sound and their security is guaranteed’.
They added that the army were targeting people who ‘were committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country. ‘As soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy,’ the statement continued.
Tensions have been rising in the land-locked African country after Zimbabwe’s head of the military, General Constantino Chiwenga, challenged Mugabe over his decision to sack the vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa. The move was widely seen as a power play to make way for his wife Grace to succeed him.
Chiwenga had threatened that the army could ‘step in’ to end President Mugabe’s ‘purge’ of opponents on Monday.
The ruling ZANU-PF party hit back at the threat, saying it would never succumb to military pressure and described the statement by the armed forces chief as ‘treasonable conduct’.
Tanks had been making their way to the city center throughout the day as tensions reached boiling point.
Then at least three explosions were heard in Harare, sparking fears of a coup which sent shockwaves around Zimbabwe.
Armed soldiers were also reportedly seen assaulting passers-by in the capital and loading ammunition near a group of four military vehicles in an unprecedented challenge to Mugabe.
The Zimbabwean President’s house, where gunfire was heard this morning, was also surrounded by soldiers, but speculation suggested it was for his own protection amid suggestions his 37-year reign was coming to an end.
Zimbabwe’s envoy to South Africa, Isaac Moyo, had earlier reported there was no coup, adding that the government was ‘intact’.
In Harare in the early hours of this morning, aggressive soldiers told passing cars to keep moving through the darkness.
‘Don’t try anything funny. Just go,’ one barked at a reporter on Harare Drive.
Two hours later, soldiers overran the headquarters of the ZBC, Zimbabwe’s state broadcaster and a principal Mugabe mouthpiece, and ordered staff to leave.
Shortly afterwards, three explosions rocked the center of the southern African nation’s capital, witnesses said.
Despite the troops stationed at locations across Harare, there was no word from the military as to the fate of Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s leader of the last 37 years and the self-styled ‘Grand Old Man’ of African politics.
The US embassy in Zimbabwe on Wednesday warned its citizens in the country to ‘shelter in place’ due to ‘ongoing political uncertainty’ as the crisis deepened.
‘US citizens in Zimbabwe are encouraged to shelter in place until further notice,’ the embassy in Harare said in a statement.
Tanks rolled into Zimbabwe’s capital last night, leaving the nation in political chaos as its army chief was accused of attempting a coup.
The turmoil in Harare was an unprecedented test of dictator Mugabe’s 37-year grip on power.
It came a day after the country’s most powerful generals warned the 93-year-old president he risked a coup if he continued a purge of senior figures in his ruling Zanu-PF party.
Many fear the sackings could clear the way for his wife Grace, 52, to succeed him.
It comes after vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa – nicknamed The Crocodile – was fired by Mugabe last week.
Mr Mnangagwa, 75, who has close ties to the military, had been seen as Mugabe’s natural sucessor, and after he was ousted, he took aim at Mugabe and his supporters.
He said said Zanu-PF was ‘controlled by undisciplined, egotistical and self-serving minnows who derive their power not from the people and the party but from only two individuals in the form of the first family’.
Ministers tried to dismiss reports of an unfolding coup last night as ‘fake news’, but speculation was rife that Mugabe and his family were about to be forced out.
His party said it would never succumb to military pressure and accused army chief General Constantino Chiwenga of ‘treasonable conduct’ because of his threat to step in to end the political purge.
Armoured military vehicles were spotted on key roads inside the capital’s suburbs and there were reports of heavily armed soldiers enforcing a lockdown at Mugabe’s mansion and at the headquarters of the state broadcaster.
Two witnesses described seeing a military convoy near Westgate shopping centre, six miles from central Harare.
One, a fruit seller, said: ‘I saw a long convoy of military vehicles, including tanks.’
Social media users said the army headquarters in the city centre were sealed off, with no one allowed in or out, and that road blocks were in place outside the barracks of the presidential guard.
Others said they had seen tanks heading towards the presidential guard compound in the western suburb of Dzivarasekwa. Conflicting reports from the impoverished southern African country claimed the borders had been sealed and the airport shut, although others insisted reports of a coup had been exaggerated.
Regime officials insisted Mugabe had chaired a planned cabinet meeting in the afternoon as usual, and claimed footage of military vehicles had been faked.
Although witnesses inside the city described seeing ‘tanks’, many images circulating online showed troops in armoured personnel carriers.
A media blackout appeared to be in force and there were conflicting reports from inside Harare about the extent of military manoeuvres, and whether a coup was underway or whether the military was simply putting on a show of force to back up its previous threat to step in.
The military has been a key pillar of Mugabe’s regime and has helped him keep control despite economic ruin, widespread anti-government protests, opposition challenges and international sanctions.
But there has been growing disquiet over threats against senior figures inside Zanu-PF, including Mr Mnangagwa.
The veteran of the Seventies war that led to the country’s independence fell from favour after he spoke out against a party faction led by Mrs Mugabe, saying it was ‘plundering the country’.
After Mugabe accused him of using witchcraft in a plot to take power, Mr Mnangagwa fled the country with his family, but vowed to return and lead a rebellion against the Mugabes, backed by the country’s war veterans and armed forces.
Before he went into exile, Mr Mnangagwa told Mugabe that Zanu-PF was ‘not personal property for you and your wife to do as you please’.
His ousting was widely interpreted as a bid to ensure Mrs Mugabe would become vice president at a special conference of the ruling party next month, leaving her as the natural successor to her husband as president.
Surrounded by 90 senior army officers, General Chiwenga called this week for an end to the sacking of senior figures linked to the party’s ‘revolution’ against white minority rule in the Seventies.