Zimbabwe’s capital was in a state of high tension early on Wednesday amid reports of multiple explosions in the streets and soldiers taking over the state broadcaster and manhandling staff.
Witnesses in Harare reported a number of loud explosions and saw armed forces assaulting passers-by in the early hours of the morning.
Soldiers were also seen loading ammunition near a group of four military vehicles. The explosions could be heard near the University of Zimbabwe campus, Reuters reported.
During the drama, the US embassy in the capital tweeted out a message citing “ongoing uncertainty.” A statement later posted by the embassy told US citizens in Zimbabwe to “shelter in place until further notice”.
The British foreign office earlier said it was “aware of reports of military vehicles moving on the outskirts of Harare” and said it was monitoring the situation closely.
Reuters said its reporter in the capital had encountered aggressive soldiers telling passing cars to keep moving through the darkness.
“Don’t try anything funny. Just go,” one said on Harare Drive.
Two hours later, soldiers overran the headquarters of the ZBC, Zimbabwe’s state broadcaster and a principal Mugabe mouthpiece, and ordered staff to leave. Several ZBC workers were manhandled, two members of staff and a human rights activist told Reuers.
Despite the troops stationed at locations across Harare, there was no word from the military as to the fate of President Robert Mugabe.
The extraordinary events happened hours after Zimbabwe’s government accused the head of the armed forces of “treasonable conduct” ratcheting up tension in the southern African nation.
Armed military vehicles had been seen driving through the capital earlier on Tuesday sparking rumours of a coup attempt just a day after the country’s military chief – flanked by other senior officers – warned that he was prepared to “step in” to end a turmoil in the ruling Zanu-PF party.
Witnesses had reported seeing several lorries full of soldiers and at least six armoured vehicles on roads approaching Harare in the late afternoon, though residents said there were no signs of troops at the airport or Mugabe’s official residence.
A second column of military vehicles was later reported moving down the same road.
It remained unclear who ordered the military movement, which came amid an unprecedented challenge to the 93-year-old president from the country’s powerful armed forces.
Mugabe, the only leader Zimbabwe has known in 37 years of independence, shocked the country earlier this month when he sacked powerful vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Nicknamed “The Crocodile” from his time fighting in the country’s liberation wars, Mnangagwa has a strong support base among veterans and also from within the security establishment that he once ran.
He had been considered the mostly likely candidate to succeed Mugabe if the president decided to step down or died in office. Mnangagwa’s downfall and flight into exile was widely seen as paving the way for his arch rival, Mugabe’s 52-year-old wife Grace, to take power instead.
Mugabe’s shock move caused widespread discontent among Mnangagwa’s supporters and exposed deep factional divides within Zanu-PF ranks. On Monday, Gen Constantine Chiwenga, the head of Zimbabwe’s military, called a press conference to warn that troops could intervene if long-term political allies continued to suffer.
“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,” Chiwenga said.
“The current purging, which is clearly targeting members of the party with a liberation background, must stop forthwith,” Chiwenga said, in a statement read to reporters at a news conference packed with 90 senior officers from across key units in a show of military unity.
The statement was initially carried on state media, then entirely wiped from the airwaves, but the government was slow to respond, with no word from Mugabe himself.
After a weekly cabinet meeting on Tuesday however, a statement was issued by Simon Khaya-Moyo, the government spokesman and national secretary for information and publicity, accusing Chiwenga of “treasonable conduct”.
“Such conduct stands unreservedly condemned not only in the party … but also in the [region] and the entire African continent where subversion of constitutional authority is … regarded as absolute anathema,” the statement read.
The lack of any word from Mugabe himself suggested the president might be on the back foot, however, said Piers Pigou, an expert on Zimbabwe with the International Crisis Group, who is based in neighbouring South Africa.
Mugabe’s failure to issue a clear statement reassuring supporters suggests he “is not in full control,” Pigou said.
“It is very unclear how this will play out and there is a certain amount of wishful thinking from those who would like to see Mugabe arrested or dragged off … but the president’s silence suggests he may not be in full control of the situation,” he added.
Mugabe’s authoritarian rule has been anchored by support from the military but the ageing leader has systematically dismissed veterans of the liberation struggle from party posts in recent years leaving the top echelons of Zanu-PF stacked with officials who did not fight in the independence war.
War veterans broke ranks with him in 2016 and have vowed to form a broad front with the opposition to challenge his long rule.
Chris Mutsvangwa, the head of the war veterans’ group, told reporters in Johannesburg last week that Grace Mugabe was “a mad woman” who had won power through a “coup … by marriage certificate”.
The first lady is a deeply divisive figure in Zimbabwe with limited popular support. She has been tarnished by an alleged assault against a model she had found in the company of her sons in a luxury apartment in Johannesburg in September.
Reports of extravagant purchases, including property in South Africa and a Rolls-Royce, have also angered many Zimbabweans. Pictures of one of the first lady’s sons apparently pouring most of a bottle of champagne over a luxury watch worth tens of thousands of dollars in a nightclub were shared widely on social media this week.
The former junior administrator is detested by many of the independence-era war veterans, who once enjoyed a privileged role in the ruling party under Mugabe, but who have increasingly been banished from senior government and party roles in recent years.
The crisis comes at a time when Zimbabwe faces severe economic problems. The country is struggling to pay for imports due to a shortage of dollars, which has also caused acute cash shortages.