Zimbabwe army says ‘this is not a takeover’

By The Associated Press

HARARE, Zimbabwe — In an extraordinary statement after long hours of unrest, Zimbabwe’s army early Wednesday sought to reassure the country that “this is not a military takeover” and that while President Robert Mugabe was safe and sound, the military was targeting “criminals around him” who have sent the nation spinning into economic despair.

“As soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy,” the army spokesman said, calling on churches to pray for the country.

Overnight, at least three explosions were heard in Zimbabwe’s capital and military vehicles were seen in the streets after 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 U.S. Embassy closed to the public 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.”

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.

It was not clear where Mugabe and his wife were early Wednesday. “Their security is guaranteed,” the army statement said. The president reportedly attended a weekly Cabinet meeting Tuesday.

“We wish to make it abundantly clear that this is not a military takeover,” the army 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.”

Overnight, The Associated Press saw armed soldiers assaulting passers-by in Harare, as well as soldiers loading ammunition near a group of four military vehicles. The explosions could be heard near the University of Zimbabwe campus. The developments came several hours after the AP saw three armored personnel carriers in a convoy heading toward an army barracks just outside the capital.

Mugabe last week 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.