HARARE • Zimbabwe's military seized power early yesterday, saying it was targeting "criminals" around President Robert Mugabe, the only ruler the country has known in its 37 years of independence.
Mr Mugabe's grip on power appeared to be fading as military vehicles blocked roads outside Parliament in Harare and senior soldiers delivered a late-night television address to the country after seizing state broadcaster ZBC.
"The President... and his family are safe and sound, and their security is guaranteed," Major-General Sibusiso Moyo said, slowly reading out a statement. "We are only targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes... As soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy."
Gen Moyo said: "This is not a military takeover of government."
Neighbouring South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, one of Mr Mugabe's closest allies, said he had spoken to the veteran leader by telephone. Mr Mugabe "indicated that he was confined to his home, but said that he was fine", the South African government said in a statement that called for calm.
Zimbabwe had been on edge since Monday when General Constantino Chiwenga, commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, said he was prepared to step in to end a purge of supporters of Mr Emmerson Mnangagwa, the country's vice-president who was sacked last week.
Mr Mnangagwa's dismissal left Mr Mugabe's wife, Grace, 52, in prime position to succeed her husband as the next president - a succession strongly opposed by senior ranks in the military.
Overnight, witnesses reported tanks and soldiers moving around the city, along with sounds of gunfire and explosions.
By morning, soldiers in armoured vehicles controlled major intersections near government buildings. Mr Mugabe's offices had a tank blocking the road in front and large numbers of soldiers milling around.
Local media reported that several members of the Zanu-PF ruling party have been detained by the military, including Cabinet ministers.
The United States and Britain advised their citizens in Harare to stay indoors.
The ruling party's Twitter account, which had been silent for more than a month, exploded in a string of tweets maintaining that there was no coup going on but just the army rescuing the nation from having its Constitution undermined.
"Zimbabwe is open for business. There was no coup, but a bloodless peaceful transition," said one tweet, while another noted "an elderly man who had been taken advantage of by his wife being detained", an apparent reference to Mr Mugabe.
The party's website reported that Mr Mnangagwa was back in the country and would be taking over leadership of the party.
Political analyst Mike Mavura said it was important for the military to say this was not a coup for reasons of international legitimacy.
"We are not in the 1960s and 1970s any more, when coups in Africa were left, right and centre - I think they are trying very hard to appear progressive," he said. "However, of interest to democracy, the elections scheduled for next year, will they take place?"
The European Union yesterday called for a peaceful resolution of the crisis, while France and Britain said they were closely watching the situation. "We call on all the relevant players to move from confrontation to dialogue with the aim to a peaceful resolution," European Commission spokesman Catherine Ray said.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST