Zimbabwe’s army seized control of the southern African country Wednesday, taking President Robert Mugabe and his wife into custody and securing government offices following a night of unrest.
The army took over the state broadcaster, triggering speculation of a coup. Military supports insisted it was not a coup but a “bloodless correction” of the nation’s current political order. South Africa’s president said he spoke to the 93-year-old Mugabe, who was “fine” but confined to his home.
Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Sibusiso Moyo addressed the nation Wednesday morning, saying “the situation in our country has moved to another level” and assured the public that Mugabe and his wife were safe and sound.
“We wish to make it abundantly clear that this is not a military takeover,” the military official said in the broadcast. “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.”
Moyo added that “as soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy” and urged the country to remain calm, while warning that “any provocation will be met with an appropriate response.”
It was not clear Wednesday where Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa was, though he fled the country last week citing threats to him and his family.
Ignatius Chombo, a finance minister loyal to the Mugabe family, was also arrested early Wednesday, Reuters reported.
Wednesday’s events were the first time the African nation has seen the military oppose Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state and one of the longest-serving authoritarian rulers. Mugabe has been in power since Zimbabwe’s independence from white minority rule in 1980.
The whiplash developments followed Mugabe’s firing of his deputy, which had appeared to position the first lady, Grace Mugabe, to replace Mnangagwa as one of the country’s two vice presidents at a party conference next month. But the first lady has proved unpopular among some Zimbabweans, and Mnangagwa had significant support from the military.
All troops were ordered to return to barracks immediately, with all leave canceled, said Moyo. The broadcast was sent out from the ZBC headquarters in Pocket’s Hill near Harare’s Borrowdale suburb.
The head of Zimbabwe’s influential war veterans association, once a staunch supporter of Mugabe, said they stand with the army and that Mugabe should be recalled as president and ruling party leader.
Victor Matemadanda told reporters 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.
Armed soldiers in armored personnel carriers stationed themselves at key points in Harare, while 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.
Explosions rock capital
At least three explosions were heard in the country’s capital, Harare, and the military maintained its presence on the streets. According to the BBC, gunfire was also heard in the northern suburbs of Harare and near Mugabe’s private residence.
The army has taken key points in Harare, while Zimbabweans formed long lines at banks to withdraw the limited cash available.
Chris Mutsvangwa, chairman of the war veterans association, said the army will return Zimbabwe to “genuine democracy” and make it a “modern model nation.”
The U.S. Embassy closed Wednesday, with the U.S. urging its citizens in Zimbabwe to shelter in place, claiming “the ongoing political uncertainty through the night.” The British Embassy also issued a similar alert to its citizens.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.