Zimbabwe’s army insisted that President Robert Mugabe is safe as it took over the state broadcaster and arrested a number of senior government officials during a night that saw military vehicles patrolling the streets of the capital while gunfire and explosions rang out.

Military officers denied they had carried out a coup, announcing on state TV that they were targeting a ring of government plotters following a power struggle that saw the vice-president flee the country last week.

“It is not a military takeover of government,” an army spokesman said in a televised statement. “We wish to assure the nation that his excellency the president… and his family are safe and sound and their security is guaranteed.

“We are only targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice.

“As soon as we have accomplished our mission we expect that the situation will return to normalcy.”

The address came hours after several loud explosions echoed across central Harare and troops seized the headquarters of the ZBC, Zimbabwe’s state broadcaster.

“Although it doesn’t look like a coup, it is a coup,”  Zimbabwe analyst Alex Magaisa, a senior Zimbabwe legal analyst  based in the UK, told The Telegraph.

Several cabinet ministers, including local government minister Saviour Kasukuwere and finance minister Ignatius Chombo, and Mugabe’s nephew Patrick Zhuwayo, were arrested. There was allegedly a brief gun fight outside Mr Chombo’s house. All three are part of the G40 faction of Zanu-PF which is loyal to Grace Mugabe, who was being lined up to take over from her husband after the vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa was fired last week.

Speculation had been mounting throughout the day that a coup was under way against Mr Mugabe, after the head of the armed forces threatened to “step in” over the sacking of an influential vice president.

Gunfire erupted near Mr Mugabe’s private residence in Harare in the early hours of Wednesday, a witness told AFP.

“From the direction of his house, we heard about 30 or 40 shots fired over three or four minutes soon after 2.00 am,” a resident who lives close to Mugabe’s mansion in the suburb of Borrowdale said.

Armed soldiers were assaulting passers-by in the early morning hours in Harare, according to the Associated Press, while officers were seen loading ammunition near a group of four military vehicles.

Tensions have been building in Zimbabwe since Mr Mnangagwa, a powerful figure in the ruling Zanu-PF party, fled to South Africa last week after he was fired and was then stripped of his lifetime membership of the party.

The move was widely seen as part of a battle between Mr Mnangagwa and Mrs Mugabe, the first lady, over the presidential succession when Mr Mugabe dies or steps down. The Zimbabwean president, who is 93, fights his last election next year. Many expected Mrs Mugabe to be appointed vice president in Mr Mnangagwa’s place at the Zanu-PF special congress next month.

Rumours were swirling this on Wednesday morning that Mr Mugabe and his wife have been offered safe passage to Singapore, but this could not be confirmed. China said on Wednesday  that Zimbabwe military chief General Constantino Chiwenga’s visit to China last week was a normal military visit.

South Africa urged neighbouring Zimbabwe to resist any “unconstitutional changes” of government.

Gen Chiwenga, an ally of Mr Mnangagwa, demanded on Monday that Mr Mugabe immediately cease “purging” the former vice president’s allies in the party and in government.

“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 head of the armed forces commander said.

In a statement issued on Tuesday evening, Zanu-PF accused Gen Chiwenga of “treasonable conduct.”

The governments of South Africa and Zambia on Tuesday warned military leaders in Harare not to take any “unconstitutional” steps to avenge Mr Mnangagwa.

Senior military sources in Johannesburg and Pretoria said they warned  General Chiwenga to avoid any “disruption to the constitution” after the military convoys were spotted on Tuesday afternoon.

South African diplomatic sources said late Tuesday that Zambian president Edgar Lungu also warned General Chiwenga to ensure that Zimbabwe’s constitution was respected.

A source living close to Mr Mugabe’s mansion said: “We presume any coup plotters would know that Zimbabwe would run out of fuel in a week or so, and that South Africa would likely cut off electricity.  Zimbabwe is a landlocked country and cannot survive if all borders were closed.”

A military intervention in Zimbabwean politics would be fraught with difficulties. The African Union and the regional 15-nation Southern African Development Community are both on record that they do not recognise any authority which comes to power via a coup d’etat.  

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