HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabweans woke up in a state of shock on Wednesday morning as an apparent “soft coup” against longtime authoritarian President Robert Mugabe moved ahead in earnest.
In a move unprecedented since this southern African country achieved independence nearly four decades ago, the military assumed control of the country early Wednesday and placed the 93-year-old Mr. Mugabe and his wife, Grace, under house arrest. But Maj. Gen. Sibusiso Moyo was quick to disavow talk of a coup. He portrayed the move as defensive and said officers were seeking to apprehend “criminals” surrounding the nation’s first family.
“As soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy,” Gen. Moyo said in a televised address Wednesday morning, ensuring the public that Mr. Mugabe’s family was “safe and sound and their security is guaranteed.”
For ordinary Zimbabweans and governments around the region and the world, the swift, stunning fall of the autocratic Mr. Mugabe provoked sharply mixed feelings. Many felt it was long past time for the president to go, but they worried about the extraconstitutional putsch and the intentions of the military officers who carried it out.
“He should have left power a long time ago when Zimbabweans were still in love with him,” said Agency Gumbo, 33, a Harare resident. “The army is merely representing the aspirations of the people.”
The ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front, known as ZANU-PF, party, which has been riven by an internal power struggle over Mr. Mugabe’s successor, also dismissed claims of a coup. On Twitter, it called the developments over the past days a “bloodless peaceful transition.”
From now on, the party will “present the views of ZANU-PF and Comrade Mnangagwa,” a reference to former Zimbabwean Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who fled the country last week at the height of a power struggle with Mr. Mugabe’s wife after he was fired by the president.
The Trump administration, the United Nations and the South Africa-dominated 15-nation Southern Africa Development Community all appealed for restraint by the military in what appears to have been a surgical, largely bloodless seizure of power.
The State Department said in a statement that it was “concerned by recent actions undertaken by Zimbabwe’s military forces,” but it declined for now to call the action a coup. The department said Washington “does not take sides in matters of internal Zimbabwean politics and does not condone military intervention in political processes.”
A Southern Africa Development Community delegation reportedly arrived in Harare to meet with the detained president and the army. South African President Jacob Zuma said Mr. Mugabe told him in a phone conversation that he was fine but confined to his home. Mr. Zuma said he hoped the military would respect Zimbabwe’s constitution and the “situation will not go beyond the situation where it is now.”
Confusion over ‘transition’
But confusion reigned over exactly what the military leadership had planned or how long the political “transition” might last. The distinction between a coup and a peaceful transition was hard to discern in Harare Wednesday morning as tanks rolled through the capital.
Soldiers occupied government offices and patrolled the streets. Citizens lined up in front of banks to withdraw the little cash they had in anticipation of an escalating military disruption. Explosions and gunfire were heard on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.
But many Zimbabweans welcomed what looked to be an end to Mr. Mugabe’s long and corrupt rule.
Mr. Mugabe has been the dominant political figure in the country since helping lead the struggle for independence. But the country has been devastated by a mismanaged economy and rising poverty. Human rights groups have long accused him of employing fraud, intimidation and violence to retain his grip on power.
“I’m happy this is happening to Mugabe,” said Harare resident Gerald Mutsambiwa, 37. “All dictators should go the same way. That’s the price of rigging elections.”
The U.S. Embassy shuttered its doors to the public Wednesday, told staffers to stay home and encouraged citizens to take shelter. The British Embassy also issued a warning to its citizens, citing “reports of unusual military activity.”
Felix Tsanganyiso, who sells mobile airtime vouchers in Harare, said he was following the developments on WhatsApp.
“But I am still in the dark about what is happening,” he told The Associated Press. “So far, so good. We are going about our business without harassment. My plea is that whoever takes over should sort out the economy. We are tired of living like this.”
But the events of the past three days have left many uneasy. Mr. Mnangagwa has long been a key figure in the existing power structure and enjoyed close ties to the military and to influential veterans groups before Mr. Mugabe tried to summarily dismiss him this month.
The youth wing of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, has been a base of support for Mr. Mugabe and called on the military to hold elections and not remain in power permanently.
“We want democracy to prevail at the end of the day,” said MDC Youth Chairman Happymore Chidziva. “Whatever is happening regarding the military must translate into elections where Zimbabweans would be afforded an opportunity to elect their preferred leaders.”
Until now, the military has been a bastion of Mr. Mugabe’s power base. But a fissure within the ZANU-PF over who would succeed the increasingly frail president has led to political purges and interparty turmoil.
Last week, Mr. Mugabe fired Mr. Mnangagwa and accused him of plotting to overthrow the government, forcing him to promptly flee the country. Many saw Mr. Mugabe’s moves as clearing the way for his 52-year-old wife, a polarizing figure, to succeed him.
Grace Mugabe has been known as the leader of a group of Cabinet ministers and officials in their 40s and 50s who are too young to have fought in Zimbabwe’s war to end white minority rule in Rhodesia. When Mr. Mnangagwa was fired, the generals and war veterans felt they were being sidelined and took action to stop that, analysts say.
Mr. Mnangagwa’s whereabouts was not clear Wednesday, although reports on Zimbabwean radio said he was heading back to Harare, AP reported.
More than 100 senior officials and supporters of Mr. Mnangagwa were listed for disciplinary measures at the behest of the ZANU-PF faction headed by Mrs. Mugabe, who had positioned herself to replace Mr. Mnangagwa as vice president at the party’s December conference — a move that would have all but assured her ascension to the presidency.
“The situation is in flux,” said Teddy Brett, a professor of international development at the London School of Economics. “People are forced to exchange their currency, food is scarce, and we have a situation in which everyone can see that things are going down the tubes.”
With Mr. Mugabe and his wife detained, Mr. Brett said, it was likely that the military and ZANU-PF would reinstate Mr. Mnangagwa as vice president, positioning him to assume the presidency. Mr. Mugabe and his wife would remain isolated and may be kept on to serve as figureheads.
But Mr. Brett said it’s not clear that Mr. Mnangagwa, who, like Mr. Mugabe was a key part of the independence movement dating back to the 1970s, would be an improvement in terms of human rights, civil liberties or the economy, which has nearly collapsed under Mr. Mugabe as foreign investment has fled.
“Whether that will solve anything, nobody knows,” said Mr. Brett. “Mnangagwa is intimately associated with the whole corrupt process of expropriating funds and taking over expatriates’ businesses. It’s a crony capitalist situation, and it’s clearly not going to stop here.”
Some veterans of Zimbabwe’s grinding political struggles say they hope Mr. Mugabe and his wife will take the high road and fade from the scene quietly.
“The old man should be allowed to rest,” Tendai Biti, a former finance minister, told the South African broadcaster eNCA. The president “is an intelligent man who must know the die is cast.”
• Austin Davis reported from Berlin for this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.