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Zimbabwe’s president narrowly escapes apparent assassination attempt

Smoke fills the stage after an explosion at a ZANU-PF rally in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, on Saturday. (AP)

NAIROBI — Zimbabwe’s election campaign season took a worrying turn Saturday afternoon when a crude bombing at a speech delivered by President Emmerson Mnangagwa appeared to be an attempt on his life.

Mnangagwa had just finished giving a speech in a stadium in Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, Bulawayo, when the blast went off near him and other government officials as they shuffled offstage. Widely circulated videos on social media show a cloud of smoke and a small explosion knocking over people standing in the vicinity. 

The president’s spokesman, George Charamba, released a statement saying that Mnangagwa was unhurt and that an investigation was underway. 

“There have been multiple attempts on the President’s life over the past five years,” Charamba said. 

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It was unclear whether anyone was killed in the blast, but footage from ZBC, the state broadcaster, showed medics attending to wounded people. The state-run newspaper, the Herald, quickly termed the attack an “assassination attempt.”

Mnangagwa, 75, assumed the presidency in November after Zimbabwe’s longtime leader, Robert Mugabe, was deposed by the military in a bloodless coup. Mugabe had been Zimbabwe’s only president since it gained independence in 1980, and elections that are expected to be held July 30 will be the first in which he is not a contender. Bulawayo, where the blast took place, is an opposition stronghold. 

Just a few hours after the attack, Mnangagwa took to Twitter to issue a statement calling for peace and unity. He said Saturday’s “senseless act” would not get in the way of the upcoming elections.

“Several people were affected by the blast, and I have already been to visit them in the hospital,” he wrote. “The strongest response to violence is peace. The strongest response to hate is love.”

One of the wounded Mnangagwa visited was the wife of a former army general, Constantino Chiwenga, who was instrumental in November’s coup. Chiwenga is now one of Zimbabwe’s two vice presidents. The other, Kembo Mohadi, may also have been wounded, according to the Herald.

Nelson Chamisa, leader of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, tweeted: “Terrible events at White City stadium. Our prayers go out to the injured and we hope no lives have be lost. Violence must have no place in our politics. May God bless and protect the country we all love.”

The events in November that brought Mnangagwa to power were driven by deep divisions in the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party, with different factions vying to take over after the nonagenarian Mugabe eventually relinquished power or died. Mnangagwa had speculated publicly in speeches this year that members of his own party were out to impeach him or worse. 

“Something like this was bound to happen,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Human Rights Watch’s Southern Africa director. “But the greater concern is that this could dramatically alter the campaign landscape and trigger political violence. So far, we had avoided the violence that has marred previous elections.”

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