Zimbabwe's army said on Wednesday it has President Robert Mugabe and his wife in custody and is securing government offices and patrolling the capital's streets following a night of unrest that included a military takeover of the state broadcaster.
The night's action triggered speculation of a coup, but the military's supporters praised it as a “bloodless correction.”
The developments came several hours after The Associated Press saw three armoured personnel carriers in a convoy heading toward an army barracks just outside the capital, Harare.
Overnight, at least three explosions were heard in the capital and military vehicles were seen in the streets.
The AP saw armed soldiers assaulting passers-by in Harare, as well as soldiers loading ammunition near a group of four military vehicles.
Zimbabweans formed long lines at banks in order to draw the limited cash available, a routine chore in the country's ongoing financial crisis.
People looked at their phones to read about the army takeover and others went to work or to shops.
'Targeting criminals around Mugabe'
In an address to the nation after taking control of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, Army Spokesperson Major General Sibusiso Moyo said that the military is targeting “criminals” around Mugabe, and sought to reassure the country that order will be restored.
It was not clear where Mugabe, 93, and his wife were on Wednesday but it seems they are in the custody of the military. The president reportedly attended a weekly Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
“We wish to assure the nation that his excellency the president... and his family are safe and sound and their security is guaranteed,” Moyo said, slowly reading out a statement.
“We wish to make it abundantly clear that this is not a military takeover,” the statement said.
“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.”
The spokesman added “as soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy.”
The army spokesman called on churches to pray for the nation.
He urged other security forces to “cooperate for the good of our country,” warning that “any provocation will be met with an appropriate response.”
The statement called on troops to return to barracks immediately, with all leave cancelled.
For the first time, this southern African nation is seeing an open rift between the military and Mugabe, the world's oldest head of state who has ruled since independence from white minority rule in 1980.
The military has been a key pillar of his power.
The head of Zimbabwe's influential war veterans association said they stand with the army and that Mugabe should be recalled as president and ruling party leader.
Victor Matemadanda told reporters in the capital that the country has been sliding into a “state of chaos.”
He said the ruling party should establish a commission of inquiry into Mugabe and why he decided to let his wife insult veterans and the armed forces.
On Monday, the army commander had threatened to “step in” to calm political tensions over the 93-year-old Mugabe's possible successor. The ruling party accused the commander of “treasonable conduct.”
The United States (US) Embassy closed to the public Wednesday and encouraged citizens to shelter in place, citing “the ongoing political uncertainty through the night.”
The British embassy issued a similar warning, citing “reports of unusual military activity.”
Mugabe 'confined to home', says S. Africa's Zuma
South Africa said Mugabe is under house arrest in Zimbabwe, adding it was sending envoys on behalf of the region's bloc after the army apparently took over.
“President Zuma spoke to President Robert Mugabe earlier today who indicated that he was confined to his home but said that he was fine,” the South African government said in a statement.
Zuma “has expressed hope that developments in Zimbabwe would not lead to unconstitutional changes of government,” said the statement released in Pretoria.
The S. African president appealed for “the country to resolve the political impasse amicably and has urged the Zimbabwean defence force to ensure ... the maintenance of peace.”
“Zuma, in his capacity as Chair of the Southern African Development Community, is sending Special Envoys to Zimbabwe.”
South Africa will send its intelligence and defence ministers, the statement said.
South Africa is Zimbabwe's powerful southern neighbour and is home to hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwean migrants. It has long pursued a policy of quiet diplomacy with Mugabe as Zimbabwe has previously been engulfed by a string of serious political and economic crises
“The government's silence on the military deployments seem to confirm that President Mugabe has lost control of the situation,” Robert Besseling, of the London-based EXX Africa risk consultancy, said.
“Any coup would be likely to involve the imposition of a curfew. The main indicator of a broader outbreak of violence would be the reaction of the Presidential Guard, which remains loyal to President Mugabe.”
The main opposition MDC party called for civilian rule to be protected.
“No one wants to see a coup... If the army takes over that will be undesirable. It will bring democracy to a halt,” shadow defence minister Gift Chimanikire, told AFP on Tuesday.
First lady positioned to replace VP
Mugabe is the world's oldest head of state, but his poor health has fuelled a bitter succession battle as potential replacements jockey for position.
In speeches this year, Mugabe has often slurred his words, mumbled and paused for long periods.
His lengthy rule has been marked by brutal repression of dissent, mass emigration, vote-rigging and economic collapse since land reforms in 2000.
Last week, the president fired Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and accused him of plotting to take power, including through witchcraft.
Mnangagwa, who enjoyed the military's backing and once was seen as a potential president, fled the country and said he had been threatened.
Over 100 senior officials allegedly supporting him have been listed for disciplinary measures by a faction associated with Mugabe's wife, Grace.
The first lady appeared to be positioned to replace Mnangagwa as one of the country's two vice presidents at a special conference of the ruling party in December, leading many in Zimbabwe to suspect that she could succeed her husband.
Grace Mugabe is unpopular with some Zimbabweans because of lavish spending as many struggle, and four people accused of booing her at a recent rally were arrested.
'Purges against senior party officials should end'
On Monday, army commander Constantino Chiwenga issued an unprecedented statement saying purges against senior ruling ZANU-PF party officials, many of whom like Mnangagwa fought for liberation, should end “forthwith.”
“We must remind those behind the current treacherous shenanigans that when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in,” the army commander said. The state-run broadcaster did not report on his statement.
Showing a generational divide, the ruling party's youth league, aligned with the 52-year-old first lady, on Tuesday criticised the army commander's comments, saying youth were “ready to die for Mugabe.”
On Tuesday night the ruling party issued a statement accusing the army commander of “treasonable conduct,” saying his comments were “clearly calculated to disturb national peace and stability” and were “meant to incite insurrection.”
Frustration has been growing in once-prosperous Zimbabwe as the economy collapses under Mugabe.
The country was shaken last year by the biggest anti-government protests in a decade, and a once-loyal war veterans association turned on the president, calling him “dictatorial” and blaming him for the economic crisis.
“Mnangagwa was held out by many as the best hope within ZANU-PF for piloting an economic recovery,” analyst Piers Pigou with the International Crisis Group wrote Tuesday.
Now, “Mugabe will have to employ all his guile if he intends to ensure continued accommodation with the armed forces.”
Zimbabwe war vets praise army for 'bloodless correction'
The Zimbabwe army's takeover of the state broadcaster and action against some members of President Robert Mugabe's government has been praised as a “bloodless correction” by the country's war veterans' association.
Chris Mutsvangwa, chairman of the war veterans' group, told The Associated Press in Johannesburg that Army General Constantino Chiwenga has carried out “a bloodless correction of gross abuse of power.”
Mutsvangwa said the army will return Zimbabwe to “genuine democracy” and make the country a “modern model nation.”
Mutsvangwa and the war veterans are staunch allies of Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was fired from his post of vice president by Mugabe last week