Zimbabwe army denies takeover

Ageing Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe 93 who has been in power since 1980 is in increasingly fragile health and makes regular trips abroad for medical treatment

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Political turmoil escalated in Zimbabwe overnight, raising the question of whether 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe remains in control of the country he's ruled for nearly four decades - or if he's been overthrown in a military coup.

Prolonged gunfire erupted near Mr Mugabe's private residence in the suburb of Borrowdale early today, a witness told AFP. However, Isaac Moyo, Zimbabwe's ambassador in South Africa, claimed the government remains "intact".

Soldiers quickly seized the state broadcaster, ZBC, manhandled its staff and read out a statement announcing its plans, Reuters reported.

He said Mr. Mugabe and his family were "safe and sound, and their security is guaranteed".

In the army's overnight broadcast, the spokesman, Gen. Sibusiso Moyo, said the military expected "normalcy" to return as soon as the army had completed its "mission".

The ruling party, ZANU-PF, said Chiwenga's statement suggests "treasonable conduct. meant to incite insurrection".

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Tensions were raised further on Tuesday when armoured vehicles were seen taking up positions on roads outside Harare, although their goal was unclear.

A United States embassy spokesman in Zimbabwe said the embassy would be minimally staffed and closed to the public on Wednesday. The veteran of the country's 1970s liberation war was popular with the military and had been seen as a likely successor to Mugabe.

Chiwenga's unprecedented statement represented a major escalation of the struggle to succeed Mugabe, the only leader Zimbabwe has known since it gained independence from Britain in 1980.

Grace and the president had two children while his wife was ailing from the kidney failure that killed her in 1992.

The southern African nation had been on edge since Monday when Chiwenga, Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, said he was prepared to "step in" to end a purge of supporters of sacked vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa.

He insisted, however, that the move was not "a military takeover of government" and added that President Robert Mugabe was safe.

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Concerns grew on Tuesday after soldiers seized Zimbabwe's state broadcast ZBC in response to accusations by the ruling ZANU-PF party that the head of the military had committed treason.

Mugabe's second wife has developed a reputation as a shrewd, if sometimes extravagant, politician, and has steadily gained influence among youth in Zimbabwe.

But a recent post from the ruling party's own Twitter account suggests the first family has been detained.

The U.S. Embassy in Zimbabwe is urging Americans in the country to shelter in place amid mounting concerns of a military coup.

"Usually, the police support unit quickly rushes onto the streets and it was feared they would mobilise the youths and give them guns so they could fight back, but the military boxed them deep in the night and took over all strategic points there", a witness said.

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