Armored vehicles and soldiers patrolled streets in the capital, Harare, amid loud explosions overnight. Soldiers reportedly took control of the headquarters of the national broadcaster, ZBC, and an army spokesman said on air: "This is not a military takeover."
"We are only targeting criminals around [Mugabe], who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country, in order to bring them to justice," according to the statement.
However, just a week after Mugabe, 93, fired longtime vice president and liberation war veteran Emmerson Mnangagwa, accusing him of disloyalty and disrespect, an account purporting to belong to the ruling ZANU-PF party tweeted that Mnangagwa had been installed as the party's interim president.
The apparent putsch, which the military is refusing to call a coup, marks the first time in Mugabe's 37-year rule that a public rift was visible between the military and the world's oldest head of state, who has been in office since the end of white minority rule in 1980.
Initially, the governing party accused Army Chief Gen. Constantino Chiwenga of "treasonous conduct," but the party's account later tweeted: "There was no coup," but instead "a bloodless transition which saw corrupt and crooked persons being arrested." Apparently referring to Mugabe, the tweet said that "an elderly man who had been taken advantage of by his wife [was] detained."
The ZANU-PF Twitter account retweeted a message from the party's youth league that said, "The army is simply effecting a National Democratic Project and it's doing so with peaceful aplomb."
In the army's overnight broadcast, spokesman Gen. Sibusiso Moyo said the military expected "normalcy" to return as soon as the army had completed its "mission."
Chiwenga had made an unprecedented announcement Monday that the army was prepared to intervene to halt party infighting and the purging of veterans, such as Mnangagwa, who fought Zimbabwe's independence war.
Mnangagwa had been tipped as a likely successor to Mugabe, but fell foul of the president's powerful wife, Grace Mugabe. His removal was widely perceived as a prelude to Mugabe promoting the politically ambitious but controversial first lady to one of two vice presidential posts.
In a statement attributed to Mnangagwa at the time he reportedly left for self-imposed exile, he promised to return to Zimbabwe to "lead" the country, warning Mugabe that the ZANU-PF party was not his personal property.
The U.S. Embassy closed to the public and encouraged citizens to shelter in place, citing "the ongoing political uncertainty through the night." The British Embassy issued a similar warning and noted "reports of unusual military activity."
Zimbabwe political crisis: How a week of chaos unfolded
It has all the markings of a coup: a solemn soldier addressing the nation on state television in a beret and fatigues, armored vehicles in the capital and jittery, puzzled citizens.
After a chaotic night of gunfire and uncertainty in Zimbabwe, a soldier announced Wednesday that President Robert Mugabe is safe following an apparent coup. But the soldier, Maj. Gen. S.B. Moyo, warned that this is no military coup, just a crackdown on "criminals."
Zimbabwean officials have jostled for power for years, which escalated with the firing of the vice president last week, setting off a series of actions leading to Wednesday.
Here's a quick refresher on how it all unfolded:
How did Zimbabwe get here?
For years, the ruling party has been embroiled in a bitter succession battle that has, at times, spilled out into the open.
Zimbabwean media have reported on increasingly open animosity between Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and first lady Grace Mugabe -- both of whom were considered leading candidates to replace the aging President.
Despite the history of infighting, Mugabe's firing of Mnangagwa last week so close to next year's elections stunned the nation. He has been a key strategist for Mugabe in past elections, says David Coltart, a former Cabinet minister.
After decades of cutting ties with allies, Mugabe may have taken a step too far this time.
"Mugabe, for all his faults, has shown amazing political acumen over the years," Coltart says. "But this is a foolish move."
At age 93, it's unclear if one of the world's longest serving leaders was still in control of the country he's ruled for almost four decades.
Complicating things even further, Mnangagwa has a strong following in the military, and his firing led to a warning from the armed forces' Gen. Constantino Chiwenga, who said the military will intervene if political allies continue to be sidelined.
State media did not cover Chiwenga's news conference when it happened last week, but re-aired it on state media Wednesday, a sign that the military may have taken control of the station.
Where is the President?
Mugabe had not issued a statement Wednesday and his whereabouts remain unknown.
Moyo sought to reassure the nation, saying Mugabe and his family "are safe and sound and their security is guaranteed."
"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," he said.
What is his wife's role in the political crisis ?
The President's wife, Grace Mugabe, is a key player in the unfolding political crisis.
In the past, the 52-year-old first lady mostly made headlines for her extravagant shopping sprees, which earned her the nickname "Gucci Grace." But in recent years, she's grown especially vocal, leaving tongues wagging that her husband is grooming her to succeed him.
The first lady became head of the ruling party's women's league a few years ago, prompting even more speculation that she'll be her husband's successor. The firing of the vice president, analysts say, moves her closer to her goal.
Mugabe's second wife has developed a reputation as a shrewd, if sometimes extravagant, politician, and has steadily gained influence among young people in Zimbabwe.
But she's also made headlines for the wrong reasons, including the alleged assault of a South African model in Johannesburg this year. Mugabe denied the charges, but was granted diplomatic immunity before she could make a court appearance.
Why was the vice president fired?
Mugabe's firing of Mnangagwa, his right-hand man for nearly four decades, stunned the nation.
In a statement issued by the government spokesman, Mugabe accused the vice president of "disloyalty, disrespect, deceitfulness and unreliability."
Mnangagwa, nicknamed "crocodile" because of his political longevity, was with Mugabe from the start, serving as his assistant during the liberation struggle and later as his intelligence chief and Cabinet minister.
Where's the vice president?
The former vice president has since gone into hiding and his whereabouts are unknown.
But he's not going down without a fight. He's calling on his supporters to help him build a coalition to take on Grace Mugabe in the next election.