Harare (AFP) - Zimbabwe's war veterans' surprise attack on President Robert Mugabe signals the "beginning of the end" for the long-time leader, already buckling under pressure from a restive population angry over worsening economic woes.
In a rare public rebuke to the world's oldest president, war veterans decried Mugabe's "dictatorial tendencies" and vowed to withdraw their support if he seeks re-election in 2018.
"This is the beginning of the end for Mugabe," said Takavafira Zhou, a political scientist from Masvingo State University.
"The war veterans have realised Mugabe is sinking and with him his regime. They don't want to sink with the ship," said Zhou.
For decades, the war veterans who fought in the 1972-1979 war of independence have propped up Mugabe as the "heart and soul" and "foot soldiers" of the ruling Zanu-PF party, said analyst Charles Laurie of London-based risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.
But during a meeting last week, the war veterans said their relationship with Mugabe, 92, was seriously damaged.
"The relationship between us as war veterans and the president has broken down. He and the party do not like us anymore," the war veterans' political commissar Francis Nhando said.
The ruling party this week launched a project to reward party loyalists with housing plots, but excluded war veterans who over the years were given first priority in party and government projects.
"We very angry with what the president is doing," Beta Guvheya, a war veteran, told AFP.
"There is no money in this country not because the country is poor... but we don't have a manager," said Guvheya.
"That is the reason we are saying Mugabe must go. Mugabe is not going to win an election. No one is interested in Mugabe's government now."
Former war veterans leader Jabulani Sibanda said: "We have reached rock bottom. People are angry."
Sibanda who was expelled from Zanu-PF party for warning over the excessive influence of Mugabe's wife Grace, said the country's leadership "has lost touch with reality".
- 'People are angry' -
"By withdrawing support for Mugabe, the war veterans have dealt a serious blow to the embattled dictator," said Laurie, adding that their "proclamation seems to mark a decisive break with Zanu-PF".
Editor of the privately-owned Zimbabwe Independent Dumisani Muleya said the country was in unchartered territory.
"The war veterans' historic stand against Mugabe could be Zimbabwe's political decisive moment. It might be a turning point of epoch-making proportions," Muleya said.
Muleya warned that if the war veterans joined forces with the national resistance movement driven by civic groups, churches and opposition parties, Mugabe "could soon face his Waterloo".
The country has in recent weeks been hit by protests including a mass strike called by an evangelical pastor Evan Mawarire, which shut business earlier this month.
"I am glad everyone is standing up" (against Mugabe), said Sibanda.
Authorities in Zimbabwe on Saturday denounced the war veterans' statement as "treasonable" and "traitorous" and said they were investigating its origin and threatened to prosecute the authors.
Starting in 2000, the war veterans led seizures of white-owned commercial farms in what Mugabe said was a reversal of imbalances from the colonial era.
Their statement came in the wake of a surge of public anger against Mugabe, triggered by an economic crisis that has left banks short of cash and the government struggling to pay its workers.
Mugabe's party is split between his wife Grace and vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa as Mugabe's possible successors.