Zimbabwe despot Robert Mugabe’s bloody grip on power slips away as his wife’s hated rival is now tipped to take over

ZIMBABWEAN tyrant Robert Mugabe's bloody reign is now over – amid reports his wife's deadly rival is to become the country's next president.

The nation's army confirmed the 93-year-old dictator was being detained under house arrest but insisted he was "safe". Hugely unpopular Grace Mugabe was also "being held by the military" in Harare.

It was earlier reported that she had fled to Namibia, but officials confirmed she is still in Zimbabwe and AFP reported she is in "military custody" along with other Mugabe supporters.

Until this week, ruthless Mugabe had ruled Zimbabwe like a medieval king – rewarding his favourites but punishing those he saw as a threat.

One of those who fell foul of the despot was former vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa – the man tipped to take over from Mugabe ahead of his wife.

Mnangagwa has been embroiled in a long-running feud with Mrs Mugabe, 52, that included a bizarre alleged ice cream poisoning incident that laid bare the pair's rivalry.

Both were seen as leading contenders to replace Mugabe when he died or retired, but Mnangagwa had the support of the armed forces which viewed Grace with derision.

It was for that reasons he was stripped from office last week -sparking his allies in the military to take action.

Elections are due to be held next year but may now be brought forward.

One high-profile opposition leader said there was now “a lot of talking going on”, with the army “reaching out to different factions to discuss the formation of a transitional government ”.

Negotiations had been going on for several months with “certain people within the army”, a second senior opposition official told The Guardian.

The official said Mugabe would resign this week and be replaced by Mnangagwa, with opposition leaders becoming vice president and prime minister.

There was no independent confirmation of his claim.

Soldiers had earlier seized the country's state TV station amid explosions and gunfire after tanks rolled into capital Harare.

Brits were immediately warned by the Foreign Office to stay indoors while Americans were told to "take cover and seek shelter" in the southern African nation.

ExiledMnangagwa – nicknamed The Crocodile – has been installed as leader after being flown back into the country, a Twitter account claiming to be run by plotters said.

The account, with 55,000 followers, has in the past been accused of being a parody account.

It said: "Zimbabwe was not owned by Mugabe or his wife" – a reference to Grace Mugabe, who the statement accuses of "taking advantage" of the elderly despot.

Zimbabwe coup: What we know so far

She was widely accused of running the country for infirm Mugabe and feared to be plotting a power grab when he died.

In a sign her allies were coming under pressure, the head of the ruling party's youth wing, Kudzanai Chipanga, appeared on state TV on Wednesday evening to apologise for comments he had made criticising the army a day earlier.

He said he was speaking voluntarily.

Britain's foreign minister Boris Johnson has warned against handing power "from one unelected tyrant to the next".

The army finally stepped in yesterday after Mugabe fired popular number two Mnangagwa, his probable successor, last week.

The alleged Zanu-PF account added: "Last night the first family was detained and are safe, both for the constitution and the sanity of the nation this was necessary.

"Today begins a fresh new era and comrade Mnangagwa will help us achieve a better Zimbabwe."

Leading commentator on Zimbabwean politics Chris Mutsvangwa said: “This is a correction of a state that was careering off the cliff.

“It’s the end of a very painful and sad chapter in the history of a young nation, in which a dictator, as he became old, surrendered his court to a gang of thieves around his wife.”

Robert Mugabe's rule in numbers

93 – age of the Zimbabwean despot

37 – years in power after seizing control following independence from Britain in 1980

20,000 – number of people from the Ndebele minority killed in state-sponsored violence

28 – number of white farmers killed

79,600,000,000 – rate of inflation before Zimbabwe was forced to adopt the US dollar in 2015

60 – life expectancy when Mugabe came to power in 1980

40 – life expectancy by 2002

2 – wives

4 – children

2003 – year Zimbabwe withdrew from the Commonwealth

16,500,000 – population of Zimbabwe

3,480,000 – number who voted in 2013 election

61 – per cent of vote Mugabe won

Conservative MP James Duddridge – who dealt with Zimbabwe during a spell at the Foreign Office – said Mugabe should be given a "soft landing" to prevent bloodshed.

He said:  "I very much hope for a bloodless and peaceful transition from an autocratic dictator, who has served his time and needs to move on, to a more democratic, open nation state that will trade and prosper and start to rejuvenate the Zimbabwean people.

"There's always a concern when there's a transition of power but we must remember Mugabe is loved by many people around Africa as a revolutionary leader.

"But he's morphed from that into a rather distasteful dictator who has abused his position.

"Providing Mugabe with a soft landing outside of Zimbabwe which, whilst is distasteful given everything that he has done and has been done in his name, will allow for a less bloody transition."

Mugabe was long seen as a hero of African independence movements after wresting control from Britain in 1980.

But the tyrant earned notoriety for allowing the persecution of white farmers that led to dozens of murders in the 1990s.

He also presided over a hyperinflation disaster that saw the country's currency sink in value by 79 BILLION per cent – sending millions of Zimbabweans into poverty and lowering the life expectancy from 61 to 40.

The former British colony left the Commonwealth in 2003 on Mugabe's orders.

He earned a reputation for falling asleep during high-level diplomatic meetings in his later years – once being snapped snoozing at the United Nations.

The World Health Organisation sparked outrage last month when it proposed appointing Mugabe as a global health ambassador before withdrawing the offer.

Who is Emmerson 'The Crocodile' Mnangagwa?

The towering former vice-president now finds himself as the man mooted to replace Mugabe following a military coup in Zimbabwe overnight.

The brutal efficiency of his move mimics the cut-throat tactics of old – when he and a band of guerillas would attack white farmers with knives.

Violence against the white Rhodesian government – that would later be renamed Zimbabwe – earned him the nickname The Crocodile… and a spell in prison.

And it was during those years behind bars that the 75-year-old met Mugabe and would ride on his coat tails when he became prime minister in 1980.

Named his security chief, University of London-educated Mnangagwa led a band of North Korean-trained special forces who carried out unimagineable acts of cruelty against tribes in the western Matebeleland regions of Zimbabwe.

Even Mugabe admitted the 20,000 deaths his protege's forces caused were unacceptable.

But it did not stop Mnangagwa rising up the ranks to become justice minister, defence minister and eventually, in 2013, vice president.

The Crocodile clashed with Mugabe's wife Grace to such an extent that the 93-year-old president forced him out of office earlier this month.

His army-backed move back into the fray today is now accepted to be a bid to oust his old mentor and seize power for himself.

The leadership crisis reached a head over night when soldiers stormed the national TV station and told the nation the army was "targeting criminals" and was not planning "a military takeover of government".

Named as Major General S.B. Moyo, he added that tyrant Mugabe and his family were "safe and sound" but warned "any provocation will be met with an appropriate response".

The dramatic scenes came as heavy gunfire and shellfire was reported in capital Harare in the early hours of this morning.

The UK Foreign Office responded by telling Brits in the country to remain indoors.

Major Moyo added: “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 US Embassy in Zimbabwe says it will be closed to the public on Wednesday because of "ongoing uncertainty" in the capital.

The embassy announced the closure on Twitter early Wednesday, shortly after at least three explosions were heard in Harare and military vehicles were seen in the streets.

The embassy says it will remain "minimally staffed."

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