Africa

Zimbabwe ex-army chief Solomon Mujuru dies in farm fire

Solomon Mujuru (L) and his wife Joice Mujuru (R), photographed in August 2009
Image caption Solomon Mujuru has always kept a senior role in President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party

Zimbabwe's ex-military chief Solomon Mujuru has died in a fire at his farm, the state security minister has said.

Mr Mujuru, 62, was one of Zimbabwe's most senior politicians and married to Vice-President Joice Mujuru.

Analysts say his death is likely to intensify turmoil in President Robert Mugabe's party over the question of who will succeed the 87-year-old leader.

Under his nom de guerre, Rex Nhongo, he was the director of Mr Mugabe's forces during the 1970s' war of independence.

State Security Minister Sydney Sekeramayi said Gen Mujuru died in a fire at his farmhouse in Beatrice, about 80km (50 miles) south of the capital, Harare, in the early hours of Tuesday.

"We came here early in the morning after we were told what had happened. I still thought he might have been badly burnt, it was difficult to reconcile that he actually died - burnt beyond recognition," Mr Sekeramayi told state-run ZBC television.

"Rex Nhongo, Gen Solomon Mujuru, was just a charred body - one of Zimbabwe's greatest sons," the minister said, struggling to hold back his emotion.

Powerbroker

Pathologists and police are investigating the cause of the fire at the 3,500-acre farm that had been seized from a white farmer in 2001.

A close relative told the BBC the family had no idea what caused the fire which eventually engulfed the farmhouse.

It began when the general was alone. Guards noticed plumes of smoke and called the maid, the relative said.

They tried to get into the house but the flames were so fierce they could not enter, they said.

When the fire service arrived the general's body was found close to the front door apparently overcome by the fumes, the relative said.

The BBC's Brian Hungwe in Harare says Gen Mujuru was a senior politburo member in the Zanu-PF party and regarded as a moderate.

He was a strategist and rumoured power broker in divisive Zanu-PF succession politics, he says.

His death will create a void and leave his wife - one of the country's two vice-presidents - exposed, analysts say.

There has been fierce rivalry between the Mujurus and Defence Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa for control of the party.

During the war against Rhodesian rule in the 1970s, Gen Mujuru led the armed struggle together with the late Josiah Tongogora.

Knox Chitiyo, of the London-based think-tank Royal United Services Institute, knew Gen Mujuru personally and said he was someone "who couldn't be pushed around".

"He was very, very respected particularly among the military in Zimbabwe and among the liberation war veterans. His liberation war credentials were pretty impeccable," Mr Chitiyo told the BBC.

He said Gen Mujuru had also proved his mettle after independence during the early 1980s.

"He had to handle a lot of internal politics within the party, a lot of politics within the military and for him to be able to handle that and retain his capacity as head of the military showed that he was a tough guy," Mr Chitiyo added.

The circumstances of the death would raise a number of questions, he said.

"There's definitely going to be a lot of speculation about this, for two reasons: One is [that] his predecessor died in a car crash and also because of what's going on right now in Zimbabwean politics - the issues around the succession, the possible elections, possibly next year."

Our reporter says it was Gen Mujuru who implored the freedom fighters in Mozambique during the conflict to accept Mr Mugabe as the leader of the Zanla rebel movement forces after his release from detention in 1974.

At independence in 1980 he took over the command of the army, before retiring and going into business 10 years later.

Our reporter says as the leading commander of the liberation war against colonial rule, he is expected to be buried at the national shrine, Heroes Acre, some time this week.

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