HARARE (Reuters) - President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe on Wednesday dismissed demands by once stalwart war veteran supporters to quit, saying he was in power by popular vote and accusing critics of plotting his ouster with longtime Western opponents.
The 92-year-old Mugabe, the only president Zimbabwe has had in 36 years of independence, was addressing thousands of Zimbabweans who rallied to support him, a few days after veterans called him a corrupt dictator.
“As long as the party says continue, I continue...If I still have the energy, I still have the life, the blessings of God, I will continue,” Mugabe said in a 50-minute address.
“Journalists, tell those you are representing that Robert Mugabe is still here, well and strong. This is me, and my people are going to have me for some time,” he said to loud cheers.
Mugabe, however, looked gray and drained, leaned for most of the time on a podium and spoke with a halting voice, laboring through his lines.
“Some of these rebels from our war veteran ranks have been working with secret agents from the American, United Kingdom and French embassies here,” said Mugabe, one of Africa’s longest serving rulers.
The veterans, who fought against white minority rule in Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was known before independence, turned on their ex-commander last week, saying he had “devoured” the values of the liberation struggle.
The government said the veterans statement amounted to treason and they would be punished.
As senior members of the ruling ZANU-PF party maneuver for advantage in a post-Mugabe era, two factions have emerged, one linked to Mugabe’s wife Grace and one for Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, backed by the powerful war veterans.
Without mentioning him by name, Mugabe responded to accusations by one of his junior ministers that Mnangagwa was plotting to unseat him by urging his vice president to declare his ambitions openly.
Mnangagwa, known in political circles as “the crocodile”, sat quietly by Mugabe’s side as he spoke.
Public discontent over high inflation, unemployment and other hardships spilled out into the streets in a nationwide protest movement this month.
Mugabe warned church leaders, including pastor Evan Mawarire who started an internet campaign that inspired rare protests against the president, to stay out of active politics and organizing anti-government protests.
“I want to warn them, these people, such as Mawarire and others, ZANU-PF will not tolerate any nonsense done in the name of religion. Once you begin to interfere with our politics, you are courting trouble. Real trouble,” he said.
Supporters dressed in ZANU-PF colors, some holding portraits of Mugabe, sang and danced at the party headquarters in response to a call to demonstrate their unwavering support.
“Mugabe is our hero and those who are criticizing him from our ranks are sellouts who must be banished. In my view Mugabe should be allowed to die in office,” said 58-year old James Mushonga.
Editing by Mark Heinrich