Soldiers have taken over the headquarters of Zimbabwe’s state broadcaster as explosions echoed across the capital Harare, witnesses say, compounding speculation of a military coup against 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe.
Witnesses said several state broadcaster ZBC members of staff were manhandled in the early hours of the morning (local time) as the soldiers occupied the premises, while the source of the explosions was not immediately apparent.
The reports follow a tense evening after Zimbabwe’s ruling party accused the head of the armed forces of treason as tanks and troops took up positions around the capital, escalating a “rupture” between Mr Mugabe and the military’s top brass.
Less than 24 hours after military chief General Constantino Chiwenga threatened to intervene to end a government purge in the ruling party, reporters said last night they saw several armoured personnel carriers on major thoroughfares on the outskirts of the capital.
As darkness fell, soldiers were seen on the streets directing traffic and telling passing cars to keep moving through the night.
On Tuesday afternoon (local time), witnesses said they saw a number of tanks turn before reaching Harare, heading towards the Presidential Guard compound in a suburb called Dzivarasekwa on the outskirts of Harare.
The added presence of troops as night fell and civilians went home — including the movement of at least six armoured personnel carriers from a barracks north-west of Harare — further sparked rumours of a coup against Mr Mugabe, although there was still no evidence Mr Mugabe had been ousted.
Notably though, the lead item on the ZBC state broadcaster’s evening news bulletin was an anti-military rally by the youth wing of Mr Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party — however the channel then missed its usual 11:00pm (local time) bulletin, without providing an explanation.
“We are deeply concerned by reports out of Harare we are in contact with our High Commission and are monitoring situation closely,” Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said.
“Zimbabwe has a volatile history, I recall being an electoral observer there in 2002. It’s deeply distressing to hear that the political situation is again as volatile as it appears.”
Ms Bishop said her department was listening to Australia’s security and intelligence agencies, and would make changes to official travel advice if required.
“We are in contact with the High Commission in Harare to make sure everyone is safe. If any Australians have concerns about family or loved ones in Zimbabwe they should contact the DFAT hotline,” she said
The Southern African nation has been on edge since Monday, when armed forces chief Constantino Chiwenga openly threatened to intervene in politics, a week after Mr Mugabe fired vice-president Emerson Mnangagwa, long seen as 93-year-old Mr Mugabe’s likely successor.
“We must remind those behind the current treacherous shenanigans that, when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in,” General Chiwenga said in a statement read to reporters at a news conference packed with top brass on Monday.
Mr Mnangagwa, a veteran of Zimbabwe’s 1970s liberation wars, was popular with the military, which viewed his removal as part of a purge of independence-era figures to pave the way for Mr Mugabe to hand power to his wife Grace, 52.
Yesterday Mr Mugabe, the only leader Zimbabwe has known in 37 years of independence, was chairing a weekly cabinet meeting in the capital.
But shortly after reports of tanks nearing the capital came through, Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party released a statement saying it would never succumb to military pressure.
In the statement, the ruling party said it stood by the “primacy of politics over the gun” and accused General Chiwenga of “treasonable conduct … meant to incite insurrection”.
Grace Mugabe had long-developed a strong following in the powerful youth wing of the ruling party.
But her rise has brought her into conflict with the independence-era war veterans, who once enjoyed a privileged role in the ruling party under Mr Mugabe, but who have increasingly been banished from senior government and party roles in recent years.
The rising political tension in the southern African country comes at a time when it is struggling to pay for imports due to a dollar crunch, which has also caused acute cash shortages.
Martin Rupiya, an expert on Zimbabwe military affairs, said the army appeared to be moving to put the squeeze on Mr Mugabe.
“There’s a rupture between the executive and the armed forces,” Mr Rupiya said.