A raging house fire has killed one of Zimbabwe's main political brokers, raising questions Tuesday about the battle within longtime President Robert Mugabe's party over who will succeed the ailing 87-year-old leader.
Gen. Solomon Mujuru, the 62-year-old former military chief and guerrilla leader, died in an overnight fire at one of his homes, the nation's army commander said Tuesday.
Mujuru headed Zimbabwe's military for more than a decade after independence in 1980, and his widow is vice president. Joice Mujuru and her supporters are vying for supremacy within their party should Mugabe die or retire.
Mugabe's ZANU-PF party has been plagued by disputes over who will succeed him. Mujuru's wife leads a powerful faction in Mugabe's party, but she counted on the support of her husband, who still commanded loyalty in the military for his role in helping sweep Mugabe into power at independence in 1980.
His power base was seen as the foundation of her political fortunes.
After his retirement, Mujuru acquired an empire of farms, properties, mines and other interests that made him one of wealthiest and most influential figures in the top echelons of Mugabe's party and its policymaking politburo.
"His death leaves the party in a shambles. He was holding it together and we will now see more infighting," said John Makumbe, a political scientist at Zimbabwe's main university.
Reporters at the scene of the farm some 35 miles (55 kilometers) southwest of Harare saw the building razed to the ground. Police said Mujuru's body was "burned beyond recognition."
Stephen Harineyo, an employee at the farm, said Mujuru went to bed Monday during a power outage, a common occurrence in Zimbabwe. It was not clear if an electrical fault may have ignited the blaze when the power came back on later.
Firefighters arrived without water, with even outages of emergency water supplies common in the embattled economy. Workers at the farm attempted unsuccessfully to stop the blaze with water collected from a stream about nearly 3 kilometers (2 miles) away.
Simon Khaya Moyo, the fourth ranking official in Mugabe's party, said Mujuru had long fought for unity in Zimbabwe.
"He was the glue to our future," he said. "None of us would have the audacity to betray him."
Mugabe visited a morgue in Harare where Mujuru's body was taken Tuesday. State television, in its nightly news, said Mugabe expressed his "shock and disbelief" at the death of the leader who molded together liberation fighters who ended colonial-era rule. Afterward, Mugabe left Harare for a regional summit in Angola, the television said. Mugabe is attending the summit of regional presidents in Luanda where Zimbabwe's political crisis is high on the agenda.
Makumbe, the political scientist, said the fire raised rumors of foul play as news of Mujuru's death spread in the capital, Harare, before an official announcement was made.
Police said they were investigating the cause of the fire.
Mujuru was known to have had sharp disagreements with political colleagues over Mugabe's possible retirement to make way for younger leaders he favored, earning him rebukes from Mugabe hard-liners, Makumbe said.
Makumbe said Mujuru was characteristically "a man of few words who was respected" among the younger political and military hierarchy.
Mugabe has acknowledged deep divisions in his party and has said he cannot leave office until he has resolved them and unified the party ahead of elections. He wants a vote to end a shaky coalition with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, his longtime opponent.
The coalition was brokered by regional leaders after disputed and violent elections in 2008.
Regional leaders have recently taken a firmer stance against violence and other obstacles to democratic reforms blamed on Mugabe and his party leaders.
In the past, Mugabe has favored Joice Mujuru, 56, to succeed him, making her his first vice president above his veteran colleague, second Vice President John Nkomo, 77.
"I don't think she will be able to do it alone," said Makumbe.
Associated Press Writer Gillian Gotora contributed to this report from the town of Beatrice, Zimbabwe.