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Regional leaders are to hold a crisis meeting to discuss a response to Zimbabwe’s military takeover as soldiers in the southern African country continued to hold president Robert Mugabe under house arrest.

Members the Southern African Development Community, a regional bloc that has called on the Zimbabwean army to avoid an “unconstitutional” change in government and urged “calm and restraint”, will convene in Botswana on Thursday.

The meeting was called by Jacob Zuma, the chair of SADC and president of South Africa, which has long worried about instability in Zimbabwe spilling over into its borders. Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa during the past two decades as their country’s economy collapsed.

South Africa dispatched envoys to Harare where they were hoping to hold talks with Zimbabwean leaders, including Mr Mugabe and the military chiefs. Mr Zuma spoke to Mr Mugabe on Wednesday and said he “indicated that he was confined to his home but said that he was fine”.

The veteran president, who has ruled Zimbabwe with an iron grip since independence from Britain in 1980, was put under house arrest after the Zimbabwean army seized control on Wednesday. A military spokesman said it was “targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country”.

The army said Mr Mugabe, 93, and his family were in a “safe and secure place”. The military has not made any new statements since a spokesman addressed the nation on state television early on Wednesday.

There has been speculation that Mr Mugabe, who has dominated Zanu-PF for decades, is refusing to publicly resign. The army said on Wednesday that the situation would return to “normalcy” as soon as “we have accomplished our mission”.

The backstory

Military intervention in Zimbabwe threatens rule of world’s oldest monarch


The military intervention came a week after Mr Mugabe sacked Emmerson Mnangagwa, his vice-president and a veteran of Zimbabwe’s liberation fight, in a move that appeared to put Grace Mugabe, 52, on course to succeed her ailing husband. Mr Mnangagwa, 75, had fled to South Africa and said he would challenge the rule of Mr Mugabe, who was using the ruling Zanu-PF as his “personal property”.

He enjoys support from veterans of the liberation struggle and is an ally of General Constantino Chiwenga, the army commander. Before his dismissal, Mr Mnangagwa was locked in a bitter succession battle with Mrs Mugabe, the president’s former secretary who was backed by a Zanu-PF faction known as the “G40” because it includes younger members of the ruling party.

Zimbabweans on Harare’s streets said that they were desperate for any change after years of political instability and economic hardship — even one brought by force.

“He [Mugabe] is a failure — thirty-seven years of failure. He didn’t do anything for Zimbabwe’s people,” said Tigere Mukaj, a street vendor, who said he backed the removal of the president.

Timeline: despot’s economic impact

1 2000 Robert Mugabe begins a controversial land reform programme under which white-owned farms are seized

2 March 2008

Ruling Zanu-PF party loses parliamentary elections. Mr Mugabe wins a presidential run-off after his main opponent Morgan Tsvangirai pulls out because of violence against his supporters

3 February 2009

Zanu-PF forms a unity government with the opposition, which helps stabilise the country. The dollar is then introduced as the main currency to combat hyperinflation

4 July 2013

Mr Mugabe and Zanu-PF win elections, but the opposition claims the polls were rigged

Most said they wanted elections to follow a transitional government led either by the army or a unity coalition formed of Zanu-PF and the opposition. Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, returned to Zimbabwe on Wednesday night.

In a joint statement, over a hundred Zimbabwean civil-society organisations said Mr Mugabe should “voluntarily step down and pave way for an all-inclusive” process to decide the next government. The army should issue a clear road map to restoring constitutional order, they added.

Analysts say Mr Mnangagwa is expected to return and could be reinstated as vice-president. He could then be sworn in as acting president at a conference of the ruling Zanu-PF party that is scheduled for next month, the analysts say.

Elections that were expected to be held at the beginning of next year could be delayed to allow “space for a six-month transitional administration to oversee the laying of the ground” for credible polls, said Piers Pigou, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Soldiers patrolled outside the state house and other government buildings in Harare on Thursday, and parliament stayed closed. But the armoured personnel carriers that had blocked off roads in the capital as the takeover swept into action on Wednesday were parked on the side of streets in the city centre.

Shops and other businesses were open for business, with long queues forming outside banks as normal as people struggle with a severe currency shortage.

Street vendors said that they had seen no drop in trading. The Herald, the state-owned newspaper now under military direction, carried the headline “Business as usual across the nation” and called on civil servants to report to work as normal.

In a market off Robert Mugabe Road in central Harare, Zimbabweans also said that they were getting used to saying what they really thought about the autocratic leader who has ruled for nearly four decades.

“I want that bastard gone,” said a 62 year-old pensioner who declined to give his name. “This country belongs to God, not to Mugabe and his family. Grace, she is a bitch, that lady. What the army is doing is good.”

Tendayi Madzongwe, a 34 year-old minibus driver, said he felt “free”.

“Everything is cool” with the army, he said. “Whoever comes after [Mr Mugabe], it’s OK.”

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