HARARE (AFP) - Zimbabwe's vice-president, once seen as President Robert Mugabe's heir apparent, has been fired along with eight Cabinet allies, the government said on Tuesday as the veteran leader purged his foes.
As the elderly head of state sought to quell infighting over his successor, chief secretary to the Cabinet Misheck Sibanda said in a terse statement that Ms Joice Mujuru had been fired. Also sacked were her allies in the ministries of energy, public service, and half a dozen other departments, he said.
The move caps a long campaign by Mr Mugabe and his closest lieutenants to isolate the 59-year-old Ms Mujuru, a former guerrilla fighter, and her supporters. She has come more and more under attack, notably from 90-year-old Mr Mugabe's increasingly powerful wife Grace.
Critics have accused Ms Mujuru of plotting to assassinate the President and of dodgy business dealings. "It has become evident that her conduct in the discharge of her duties had become inconsistent with the expected standard," Mr Sibanda said in the statement. He also blamed Ms Mujuru for "conflict between official responsibilities and private interests".
Ms Mujuru furiously rejected the allegations, saying she had become "the fly in the web of lies" and adding "no iota of evidence" had been produced against her.
The public battle with Ms Mujuru has put 68-year-old Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa firmly in top position to replace Mr Mugabe.
Mr Mnangagwa is seen as a hardliner who in the past controlled the secret police and military.
Some cite another possible candidate as Mrs Grace Mugabe, who has also been called "Gucci Grace" and "First Shopper".
The reports came after the ruling ZANU-PF party last week met for a closely watched congress to elect its officials, finally endorsing Mr Mugabe as president and the 49-year-old Mrs Mugabe as head of the party's women's wing.
After her surprise nomination for the powerful post in August, Mrs Mugabe immediately launched a sustained campaign against Ms Mujuru, accusing her of corruption and plotting to topple her husband.
Ms Mujuru's ouster shook Zimbabwean politics.
"This will leave ZANU-PF severely weakened," said Mr Charles Mangogera of Porterhill Research.
"Those who have been sacked are people with a significant social base. They are no pushovers. They are people with a significant following."
"If elections were called today you would be 100 per cent guaranteed that ZANU-PF would lose."
Ms Mujuru said she was being victimised after exposing infiltrators conspiring to destroy the party, which has ruled the country since independence in 1980.
"I have become the fly in the web of lies whose final objective is the destruction of ZANU-PF and what it stands for and ultimately the present government," Ms Mujuru said in a statement.
"A vociferous attempt has been made to portray me as 'a traitor', 'murderer' and 'sellout', yet no iota of evidence has been produced to give credence to the allegations."
Ms Mujuru earlier Tuesday blamed "a well-orchestrated smear campaign and gross abuse of state apparatus" for the loss last week of her powerful position on ZANU-PF's central committee.
Mr Mangogera said Ms Mujuru may choose to push back against the allegations.
"From her statements, one can sense she will launch a legal fight," he said. "She will certainly not take it lying down."
ZANU-PF has been riven by factionalism over Mr Mugabe's succession, but in the past party leaders managed to paper over the cracks.
Ms Mujuru did not attend last week's party congress following threats against her and her sympathisers by members of the party's youth league.
"I decided to stay away from inevitable public humiliation as was meted out to other unfortunate members of the party," she said.
"It was important to maintain the dignity of the office of the vice-president even in the face of such unwarranted violence by a section of the party membership."
When he appointed Ms Mujuru vice-president in 2004, Mr Mugabe, who has refused to name his successor, hinted that she was destined for higher office.
Ms Mujuru is a former guerrilla fighter and widow of the country's first black army chief, who had held Cabinet posts in every Mugabe government since independence in 1980.