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Nov 19, 10:01 AM EST

Zimbabwe ruling party says Mugabe goes or impeachment starts


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HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) -- Zimbabwe's ruling party Central Committee fired longtime President Robert Mugabe as party leader Sunday, saying if he doesn't resign as the country's leader by noon Monday it will begin impeachment proceedings when Parliament resumes the following day.

Clinging to his now virtually powerless post, Mugabe discussed his expected exit with the army commander who put him under house arrest days ago, in a second round of negotiations. But the world's oldest head of state was increasingly isolated in his lavish mansion, with allies departing, arrested or, like his wife, now expelled from the ruling party.

A day after huge crowds rallied peacefully in the capital, Harare, for the 93-year-old Mugabe to go, members of the ZANU-PF party's Central Committee stood, cheered and sang as Mugabe was recalled. Meeting chair Obert Mpofu referred to him as "outgoing president" and called it a "sad day" for Mugabe after 37 years in power.

"He has been our leader for a long time and we have all learned a great deal from him," Mpofu said. But Mugabe "surrounded himself with a wicked cabal" that brought him down.

The meeting replaced Mugabe as party chief with the vice president whose firing nearly two weeks ago led the military to step in, and recalled the unpopular first lady Grace Mugabe as head of the women's league.

That former vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is expected to lead a new government after the Central Committee made him its nominee to take over as the country's president when Mugabe goes. Without the military's intervention, the first lady likely would have replaced Mnangagwa as vice president and been in a position to succeed her husband.

The Central Committee accused the first lady of "preaching hate, divisiveness and assuming roles and powers not delegated to the office." The committee's decisions will be formalized at a special party congress next month.

Impeaching the president is the next step when Parliament resumes Tuesday, and lawmakers will "definitely" put the process in motion, the main opposition's parliamentary chief whip told The Associated Press.

Innocent Gonese with the MDC-T party said they had been in discussions with the ruling party to act jointly.

"If Mugabe is not gone by Tuesday, then as sure as the sun rises from the east, impeachment process will kick in," Gonese said.

The Central Committee also expelled several high-level members close to the first lady, including minister of higher education Jonathan Moyo, finance minister Ignatious Chombo, Mugabe's nephew Patrick Zhuwao, local government minister Saviour Kasukuwere, foreign affairs minister Walter Mzembi and several others.

Mugabe's talks with army commander Constantino Chiwenga were the second round of negotiations on an exit as the military tries to avoid accusations of a coup. The state-run Zimbabwe Herald newspaper published photos of the meeting, with few details.

Zimbabwean officials have not revealed details of the talks, but the military appears to favor a voluntary resignation by Mugabe to maintain a veneer of legality in the political transition. Mugabe, in turn, could be using whatever leverage he has left to try to preserve his legacy as one of Africa's liberation leaders or even protect himself and his family from possible prosecution.

Chris Mutsvangwa, head of the country's liberation war veterans, vowed to "bring back the crowd" if the president didn't step aside but said he was concerned that the military could end up opening fire to protect Mugabe from protesters.

"We would expect that Mugabe would not have the prospect of the military shooting at people, trying to defend him," Mutsvangwa said. "The choice is his."

Sunday's negotiations did not appear to include the South African government delegation that took part in the first round. The southern African regional bloc will hold a four-country summit in Angola on Tuesday to discuss the Zimbabwe situation.

On Saturday, most of Harare's population of 1.6 million poured into the streets in an anti-Mugabe demonstration that just days ago would have brought a police crackdown.

They clambered onto tanks moving slowly through the crowds, took selfies with soldiers and surged in the thousands toward the State House building where Mugabe holds official functions, a symbol of the rule of the man who took power after independence from white minority rule in 1980.

The euphoria came after years of watching the once-prosperous African nation fall into decay, with a collapsing economy, repression of free speech, disputed elections and international sanctions.

Even as concerns remained about who next would be in charge and what freedoms might be available if the military lingers in power - or if Mnangagwa succeeds his longtime ally Mugabe as leader - people reveled in the rare chance to express themselves freely.

Let us have this moment, Zimbabweans said. If the next leader becomes trouble, they vowed to return to the streets again.

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