Tanks were deployed outside Zimbabwe's capital Harare on 14 November amid fears a coup could be underway, according to reports.

The country is experiencing rising tensions after President Robert Mugabe sacked vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, prompting condemnation by the country's military chief.

Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, Constantine Chiwenga, said he would intervene after accusing Mugabe of plunging the country into crisis by sacking Mnangagwa. His comments prompted the youth wing of the ruling party - Zanu PF - to publicly accuse him of subverting the constitution.

The Associated Press witnessed three armoured personnel carriers with several soldiers in a convoy on a road heading toward an army barracks just outside the capital, Harare.

While it is routine for armoured personnel carriers to move along that route, the timing heightened unease in this southern African country that for the first time is seeing an open rift between the military and 93-year-old Mugabe.

Witnesses told Reuters that they saw at least four tanks heading towards Harare on Tuesday.

A witness saw two tanks parked beside the main road from Harare to Chinhoyi, about 20 km (14 miles) from the city. Soldiers at the scene refused to talk to the news agency.

Zanu PF was not immediately available for a comment on the situation.

However, a Twitter handle purportedly affiliated to the party dismissed coup fears.

"Thanks for your concerns, there is NO coup happening in Zimbabwe. Please continue with your lives and face up to your own problems," it said.

Harare-based human rights lawyer Doug Coltart told IBTimes UK: "People are on edge and are concerned. It's not outright panic yet, people still feel that a coup is unlikely - including myself."

Mnangagwa was widely backed by the army and was once viewed as a potential successor to the president.

His sacking opens the way for Mugabe's wife, Grace, to be named a vice president at a special conference of the ruling party, ZANU-PF, in December.

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Chiwenga said "instability" in the ruling party had caused "distress, trepidation and despondence." He accused the party of expelling senior officials who participated in the 1970s war against white-minority ruled Rhodesia, saying "counter revolutionaries" are plotting to destroy the party.

First lady Grace Mugabe is known as a leader of a group of party officials known as the Generation 40 or G40 because many of them are in their 40s and 50s and are too young to have participated in Zimbabwe'sindependence war. The faction has reportedly in the past week drawn up a list of dozens of top party officials whom they want expelled or suspended from the party.

"The current purging and cleansing process in ZANU-PF which so far is targeting mostly members associated with our liberation history is a serious cause for concern for us in the defense forces," said Chiwenga, at a press conference, reading from his statement.

"We must remind those behind the current treacherous shenanigans that when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in. The current purging of which is clearly targeting members of the party with a liberation background must stop forthwith."

Is a coup likely?

Robert Mugabe Zimbabwe
Constantine Chiwenga Zimbabwe

Jeffrey Smith, analyst and executive director of Vanguard Africa, told IBTimes UK a coup is not likely at the moment.

"While the events in Zimbabwe today are certainly alarming, a military coup is likely not imminent. The troop movements are a public seeping of the long-widening fissures within the country's ruling party, ZANU-PF," he said.

"It appears to be a public show of force meant to accomplish two key things. First, it reminds, unequivocally, who wields true power in the country. And second, it puts those on notice who are backing Grace Mugabe's political rise, and potential presidency, that such an outcome will not be tolerated by the military and security forces."

Coltart seems to agree with this view.

"I think that this is more likely a show of force by the military to strengthen their hand for negotiations with the party," he said.

"It's likely they will use this to force Mugabe to stop the purge of people linked to former VP Mnangagwa and to purge people the army does not like - such as members of the ZANU PF G40 faction."

Security analyst David Otto, however, believes that a coup is imminent as the country is experiencing economic hardship.

He told IBTimes UK:"The country is in economic turmoil, shortage of food and virtually no money. It's like the French Revolution, people have no bread and this has reached a point where even the military that has been loyal to him are now putting their loyalty to the country."

Chiwenga did not state what action the military would take but said the defense forces "strongly urge the party to stop the reckless utterances by politicians from the ruling party denigrating the military which is causing alarm and despondency within the rank and file."

Grace Mugabe has previously criticized Chiwenga for allegedly using Mugabe's name to handpick a war veterans' leader, Chris Mutsvangwa, who has become a vocal critic of the president and a supporter of the fired vice president.

Mugabe has also in the past warned military commanders from interfering in ZANU-PF succession politics.

"Politics shall always lead the gun and not the gun politics. Otherwise it will be a coup," Mugabe told his supporters in July amid speculation at that time the military supported Mnangagwa to take over from him.

Mugabe and ZANU-PF have ruled this once prosperous but now economically troubled southern African country since independence from white minority rule in 1980. Most of the military commanders participated in the independence war.