Harare, Nov 16: President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe for nearly four decades, was under house arrest on Wednesday, hours after the military announced it had taken him into custody in what appeared to be a coup.
The fate of Mugabe, 93, who kept a tight grip on his southern African nation despite his increasing diplomatic isolation from the West, appeared to be in the hands of former allies and opposition officials negotiating his future.
South African President Jacob Zuma said he had spoken to Mugabe who had indicated that he "was confined to his home but that he was fine". Troops were reportedly stationed at the country's Parliament and Presidential Palace, the New York Times reported.
In a dramatic televised statement early on Wednesday, an Army spokesman denied that a military takeover was underway.
But the situation bore all the hallmarks of a coup. The Army was in control of the state broadcaster Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corp (ZBC), there was a significant military presence at the international airport and Mugabe's whereabouts were unknown for hours.
After taking over ZBC, two uniformed officers said in a terse pre-dawn announcement that "the situation in our country has moved to another level".
While denying that the military had seized power, they said Mugabe and his family "are safe and sound and their security is guaranteed", the BBC reported.
"We are only targeting criminals around him (Mugabe) who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice," said Major General S.B. Moyo, the Army's Chief of Staff.
He warned that "any provocation will be met with an appropriate response".
The early morning broadcast interruption came less than 48 hours after Army commander Constantino Chiwenga warned that "when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in".
In response, Mugabe's ruling party Zanu-PF accused Chiwenga of "treasonable conduct".
Witnesses reported tanks and soldiers moving around the city overnight along with sounds of gunfire and explosions. By morning, soldiers in armoured vehicles controlled major intersections near government buildings. But otherwise the streets appeared to be calm. Shops and banks were open and most people carried on business as usual.
Some people praised the military while many said they feared speaking amid the uncertainty.
Street vendor Tendai Muganhu, 43, said, "I am happy because I know whoever will come into power won't be like Mugabe, won't chase vendors from streets, but will certainly improve our lives."
The military did not say whether Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980, had been removed as President.
Local media reported that several members of the Zanu-PF party had been detained by the military, including cabinet ministers.
The intervention came after weeks of political turmoil, in which Mugabe sacked his powerful Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who enjoyed wide support in the military and was tipped to become the next leader.
The move fuelled speculation Mugabe would try to install his wife, Grace, to succeed him.
Mnangagwa was reported to be on his way back to Zimbabwe and now is seen as the country's new leader. Negotiations were underway between Mnangagwa's allies and opposition parties to possibly form an interim government that would soften international criticism of the military takeover.
No resistance could be seen from forces that had long remained loyal to the President, including the presidential guard and the vast network of secret intelligence that had helped Mugabe keep a grip on the nation despite a crumbling economy and diplomatic isolation.
Mnangagwa was also known to be on good terms with Morgan Tsvangirai, the longtime leader of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change.
Chris Mutsvangwa, an aide to Mnangagwa, said that in a possible interim government, Mnangagwa would serve as President and Tsvangirai as Prime Minister.