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Robert Mugabe made his first public appearance on Friday since the military took over Zimbabwe this week when it placed the veteran president under house arrest.

Mr Mugabe’s appearance at a university graduation ceremony came a day after South African envoys held talks with the 93-year-old leader and General Constantino Chiwenga, the army commander, who led the military takeover. The defence force said on Friday it would continue to engage with Mr Mugabe and that it had made considerable progress in weeding out what it called the “criminal elements” around him.

There have been reports that the president is resisting military pressure to resign and end his 37-year rule of the southern African nation. But a senior official in the ruling Zanu-PF party told the Financial Times that the army was not insisting that Mr Mugabe, who dozed off at the graduation ceremony, step down. Instead, it had asked him to ensure that his wife, Grace Mugabe, who had been manoeuvring to succeed her husband, left politics for good.

The military has detained several cabinet members who were deemed to be part of Mrs Mugabe’s faction in Zanu-PF, including Ignatius Chombo, the finance minister, and Jonathan Moyo, the education minister.

After deploying troops and armoured vehicles in Harare in the early hours of Wednesday and taking control of the state-controlled broadcaster, the military had said it was not conducting a coup, adding that “as we have accomplished our mission we expect that the situation will return to normalcy”.

The military intervention came a week after the president sacked Emmerson Mnangagwa, his vice-president and a veteran of Zimbabwe’s liberation fight, in a move that had then appeared to put Mrs Mugabe, 52, in a good position to take over from her ailing husband. Mrs Mugabe has been at the centre of a vicious succession battle in Zanu-PF and is loathed by many of the party’s liberation veterans.

The senior Zanu-PF official said the army was also seeking guarantees of an open leadership contest at a party congress next month that could be used to break Mr Mugabe’s decades-long hold on the party.

Robert Mugabe, second right, with army chief Constantino Chiwenga, right, and South African envoys at State House in Harare on Thursday © AFP

Kames Mabvundwi, a Zanu-PF member and academic, said there was no option but for Mr Mugabe to go. “He’s senile and no longer in charge. The wife is in charge,” Mr Mabvundwi said.

He said he believed that Mr Mnangagwa was the man to spearhead a “reform agenda”.

“He’s the best person to lead that transition,” Mr Mabvundwi said.

Chris Mutsvangwa, the chairman of Zimbabwe’s war veterans association, said the organisation was giving Mr Mugabe an “ultimatum” to resign by the weekend.

“He is to make a decision to promptly leave office” or “we’ll settle the score”, warned Mr Mutsvangwa, who called on Zimbabweans to join a mass protest in Harare on Saturday. He ridiculed Mr Mugabe’s own liberation war record, saying he had never served on the front lines.

If Gen Chiwenga cannot persuade Mr Mugabe to accept a deal, the army may consider other measures, including impeachment, which requires a two-thirds parliamentary majority, to force him out, said Welshman Ncube, an opposition leader.

Former and current members of Zanu-PF, the party that has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, said that if such a move fails, the army would either have to leave Mr Mugabe in office or drop the pretence that a coup had not taken place.

Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, said: “In the interests of the people of Zimbabwe, Mr Robert Mugabe must resign, step down immediately in line with national sentiment.”

He said there was “an urgent need for a road map to return to legitimacy”, which should involve “a negotiated and inclusive transitional mechanism” and eventual democratic elections.

Didymus Mutasa, a veteran of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle who spent years by Mr Mugabe’s side until his expulsion from Zanu-PF in 2014, said the army had not intervened to open up the political process. “I’m not sure this was justified,” he said.

“They seem to have come to impose their own candidate, Emmerson Mnangagwa,” Mr Mutasa added. “That’s wrong.”

Mr Mnangagwa, who is close to Gen Chiwenga, was sacked by Mr Mugabe last week.

Joice Mujuru, a former vice-president forced out of Zanu-PF by Mrs Mugabe in 2014, called for Mr Mugabe’s resignation. “There’s no doubt that we are in need of a transitional arrangement,” she said. “Our country’s reconstruction and national healing process can only be a product of free, fair and credible elections.”

Members of the Southern African Development Community, a regional bloc, have called on the Zimbabwean army to avoid an “unconstitutional” change in government and urged “calm and restraint”.

Mr Mugabe’s apparent refusal to bow to military pressure, combined with SADC’s stance against an “unconstitutional” change, could delay a transition of power by weeks, analysts said.

“They want Mugabe to abdicate. If he refuses, what do they do now?” said Ibbo Mandaza, an analyst and former senior member of Zanu-PF.

People on the streets of Harare said they were reluctant to celebrate until the situation became clear.

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