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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Mugabe makes first public appearance since military takeover

Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe attended a university graduation ceremony on Friday, making his first public appearance since military generals took control of the country earlier this week.

In a display of defiance, Mr Mugabe, 93, arrived at the ceremony in the capital Harare dressed in a blue academic gown and tasselled hat.

The generals took over late on Tuesday after vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa was sacked and Mr Mugabe's wife Grace emerged in prime position to succeed her increasingly frail husband.

Zimbabwe was left stunned by the military intervention sparked by the bitter succession battle between Mr Mugabe and Mr Mnangagwa, 75.

Analysts say the military leadership was strongly opposed to Mrs Mugabe's rise, while Mr Mnangagwa has close ties to the defence establishment.

Mr Mugabe and the army chiefs held talks on Friday as the takeover appeared to signal his imminent exit from office after 37 years in power since Zimbabwe won independence from Britain in 1980.

Mr Mnangagwa, who is a leading candidate to succeed Mr Mugabe, flew back to Harare on Thursday after fleeing the country when he was sacked last week.

A statement released by the armed forces on Friday said the military was "currently engaging with the commander-in-chief President Robert Mugabe on the way forward and will advise the nation of the outcome as soon as possible".

The president has refused to resign, sources said, after soldiers this week put him under house arrest in a stunning turnaround for the veteran leader who has ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist since 1980.

Mr Mugabe's motorcade on Thursday took him from his private residence to the State House for the talks which were also attended by envoys from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) regional bloc.

"He is refusing to step down. I think he is trying to buy time," said a source close to the army leadership.

Government TV earlier showed Mr Mugabe, the world's oldest head of state, dressed in a navy blue blazer and grey trousers standing alongside army chief General Constantino Chiwenga.

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Mr Mnangagwa was previously one of Mr Mugabe's most loyal lieutenants, having worked alongside him for decades.

But he fled to South Africa following his dismissal and published a scathing rebuke of Mr Mugabe's leadership and of his wife's presidential ambitions.

The military also said on Friday that they had detained some "criminals" in Mr Mugabe's government, in a reference to supporters of his wife's presidential ambitions.

Mrs Mugabe has not been seen since the military takeover.

Morgan Tsvangirai, a former prime minister and long-time opponent of Mr Mugabe, told journalists in Harare on Thursday that Mr Mugabe must resign "in the interest of the people".

He added that "a transitional mechanism" would be needed to ensure stability.

Tendai Biti, who served as finance minister during the coalition government after the 2008 elections, called it "a very delicate time for Zimbabwe".

"A way has to be worked out to maintain stability," he said.

Harare's residents have largely ignored the few soldiers still on the streets with shops, businesses and offices operating as usual.

Eldred Masunungure, a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, said the formation of a "pre-election coalition" could be a viable response to the crisis.

The international community has been watching the crisis closely.

In Paris, the head of the African Union, Guinea's President Alpha Conde, warned that the continent "will never accept the military coup d'etat" in Zimbabwe and called for a return to the "constitutional order".

"[Problems] need to be resolved politically by the Zanu-PF party and not with an intervention by the army," Mr Conde said.

A senior official of Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party told Reuters that a meeting had been scheduled for Friday to draw up a resolution asking the president to step down.

If he refused to do so, the party would launch an impeachment motion next week, the source said.

Meeting in Botswana, the SADC called for an emergency regional summit to help resolve the crisis, urging Zimbabwe to "settle the political challenges through peaceful means".

Britain, Zimbabwe's former colonial ruler, called for elections scheduled for 2018 to go ahead.