Zimbabwe Army Has Robert Mugabe in Custody and Seizes State TV

Zimbabwe Army Has Robert Mugabe in Custody and Seizes State TV

The decades-long rule of President Robert Mugabe appeared to be over Wednesday after Zimbabwe’s military took over state television to announce the autocrat was in custody.

Army chiefs told viewers that the 93-year-old despot — the world’s oldest head of state — and his family were “safe and sound” as tanks were seen on the streets of the capital, Harare.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace on Aug. 26. AARON UFUMELI / EPA, file

The U.S. Embassy was closed to the public Wednesday and encouraged citizens to shelter in place, citing “the ongoing political uncertainty through the night.”

Neither Mugabe nor his wife Grace, who has been controversially trying to succeed her husband as president, have been seen for several days. However, the military insisted there

had not been a coup.

“We wish to make it abundantly clear that this is not a military takeover,” Maj. Gen. Sibusiso Moyo said in a national address Wednesday after taking control of the (nbcnews) —Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation.

“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,” he continued. “As soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy.”

‘Not a military takeover,’ Zimbabwe’s military says after seizing state TV 1:4

Jacob Zuma, president of neighboring South Africa, said he had spoken by phone to Mugabe, who was confined to his home, and also to Zimbabwe’s military chiefs.

“I hope that they will be able to respect the constitution of Zimbabwe so that this situation does not go beyond the situation where it is now,” Zuma said.

Soldiers stationed themselves at key points in Harare while Zimbabweans formed long lines at banks to withdraw cash — a routine chore in a country plagued by economic crisis and hyper-inflation. Overnight, at least three explosions were heard.

It was not clear if the military planned to remove Mugabe, who has been in power since the end of white minority rule in 1980, nor was there any word on Grace Mugabe, but opposition lawmakers said the aging strongman’s departure was inevitable.

“We knew that a day such as this one was on its way,” said Promise Mkwananzi, spokesman for opposition pressure group, Tajamuka, and a former leader of the Zimbabwe National Students Union. “It was only a matter of time.”

‘The Crocodile’ to be installed as president?

He speculated that army chiefs would install a pro-military leader such as Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was fired from his post of vice president by Mugabe last week.

They could even allow Mugabe “to continue as a figurehead president,” Mkwananzi said.

Mnangagwa, 71, is a former Mugabe ally who earned the nickname “Ngwena,” or “The Crocodile,” after leading a group of fighters called the Crocodile Gang during the country’s pre-1980 war of independence, Voice of America reported. He was sentenced to death for blowing up trains in the 1960s but was never executed because of his young age.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”16″]This is a coup. There’s no question about that.”[/perfectpullquote]

The military move came after Army commander Constantino Chiwenga threatened to “step in” to calm political tensions. ZANU-PF responded by accusing the general of “treasonable conduct.” But now Chiwenga appears to be in control.

Tendai Biti, leader of the opposition People’s Democratic Party, said: “If it fluffs like a duck, waddles like a duck, then it’s a duck. This is a coup. There’s no question about that.”

He added: “The real issue now is how to we go back to our former, legitimate legal order and in my view this is the time to introduce an inclusive national transitional authority that will establish a roadmap towards a democracy.”

Military vehicles and soldiers patrol Harare, Zimbabwe, on Wednesday. PHILIMON BULAWAYO / Reuters

Frustration has been growing in once-prosperous Zimbabwe as the economy collapses under Mugabe after 37 years of near one-party rule. The country was shaken last year by the biggest anti-government protests in a decade.

Chris Mutsvangwa, leader of Zimbabwe’s influential war veterans, pinned the blame on Grace Mugabe.

“It’s the end of a very painful and sad chapter in the history of a young nation, in which a dictator, as he became old, surrendered his court to a gang of thieves around his wife,” he told Reuters.

Mugabe’s latest five-year term began in 2013 after elections that the U.S. said were flawed. Washington said it had no plans to loosen sanctions until there were signs of change in the country.

He told his critics to “go hang,” and reportedly served elephant meat at his 91st birthday celebrations.

The Zimbabwe Peace Project reported a near 50 percent month-on-month increase human rights violations during July, the latest period for which it had figures. Violations included “political rights, right to personal security, freedom of association, freedom from arbitrary eviction, property rights and the right to food among others,” it said