Zimbabwe was on edge yesterday as armoured personnel carriers were seen outside the capital a day after the army commander threatened to "step in" to calm political tensions over the president's firing of his deputy, and the ruling party accused the commander of "treasonable conduct."

The Associated Press saw three armoured personnel carriers with several soldiers in a convoy on a road heading toward an army barracks just outside the capital, Harare.

While it is routine for armoured personnel carriers to move along that route, the timing heightened unease in this southern African country that for the first time is seeing an open rift between the military and 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe.

Zimbabwe's Army Commander, Constantino Chiwenga addresses a press conference on Monday, criticising the instability in the country's ruling party. Photo / AP
Zimbabwe's Army Commander, Constantino Chiwenga addresses a press conference on Monday, criticising the instability in the country's ruling party. Photo / AP

The military has been a key pillar of Mugabe's power since independence from white minority rule in 1980.

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Mugabe last week fired Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and accused him of plotting to take power, including through witchcraft. Mnangagwa, who enjoyed the backing of the military and was once seen as a potential successor to Mugabe, fled the country and said he and his family had been threatened. Over 100 senior officials allegedly supporting him have been listed for disciplinary measures by a faction associated with Mugabe's wife, Grace Mugabe.

The first lady, whose political profile has risen in the past few years, now appears positioned to replace Mnangagwa at a special conference of the ruling party in December, leading many in Zimbabwe to suspect that she could succeed her husband as president.

On Monday, army commander Constantino Chiwenga issued an unprecedented statement saying purges against senior ruling ZANU-PF party officials linked to the 1970s liberation war should end "forthwith."

"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," the army commander said.

While it's not unusual to see military vehicles in Zimbabwe, the timing of this sighting has heightened unease in the capital. Photo / Twitter
While it's not unusual to see military vehicles in Zimbabwe, the timing of this sighting has heightened unease in the capital. Photo / Twitter

The state-run broadcaster did not report on his statement.

The ruling party's youth league, aligned to the first lady, on Tuesday criticized the army commander's comments, saying youth were "ready to die for Mugabe." The army spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

On Tuesday night, the ruling party issued a statement accusing the army commander of "treasonable conduct," saying his comments were "clearly calculated to disturb national peace and stability" and were "meant to incite insurrection." It was not clear whether the commander still had his post.

State broadcaster Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation read out part of the ruling party statement late in the nightly news, which was led by a report on regional tourism.

Elsewhere, the capital remained calm.

Mugabe in the past has warned military commanders from interfering in ZANU-PF succession politics. "Politics shall always lead the gun, and not the gun politics. Otherwise it will be a coup," he told supporters in July.

Frustration has been growing in once-prosperous Zimbabwe as the economy collapses under Mugabe, the world's oldest head of state. The country was shaken last year by the biggest anti-government protests in a decade, and Mugabe's appointment of a minister for cybersecurity last month was criticized by activists as a crackdown on social media users.

The arrest earlier this month of a 25-year-old U.S. citizen who was charged with subversion and accused of insulting Mugabe as a "sick man" on Twitter was called the first since the cybersecurity ministry was created.

- AP