By Cris Chinaka
HARARE (Reuters) - President Robert Mugabe appealed for tolerance and peace between Zimbabwe's leading political parties on Saturday after the death of a retired army general sparked speculation he was murdered.
Speaking at the burial of General Solomon Mujuru, 67, who was burned to ashes in a bizarre fire at his home, Mugabe urged Zimbabweans to accept the death as an unfortunate and painful tragedy.
Mujuru, a leading figure in Mugabe's ZANU-PF party for nearly four decades, was married to Vice-President Joice Mujuru, who was backed by one faction in the party to succeed Mugabe as party and state president.
Mugabe praised Mujuru, popularly known by his guerrilla name Rex Nhongo, as a great soldier and freedom fighter whose legacy would be defended by his comrades and a strong security service.
"We don't want any violence. Please, no violence, no violence. Let's organize ourselves and campaign in our different parties peacefully," he said, adding they should build on a lull in violence between ZANU-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
The MDC led by Mugabe's rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai says war veterans and ZANU-PF's youth brigades are behind the violence. ZANU-PF denies the charges.
The veteran leader told thousands of people at the funeral, including members of both parties, that the MDC and ZANU-PF must co-exist, but made no reference to media reports that his party is increasingly divided over who will eventually succeed him.
General Mujuru headed the ZANU-PF faction that supported Joice Mujuru to succeed Mugabe. It had jostled against another faction led by Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa.
AN INGLORIOUS DEATH
Mugabe appeared to dismiss suggestions that Mujuru's death was suspicious.
"It is hard to imagine that such a glorious soldier died in such an inglorious way, so uneventfully. But this is how God willed it and we cannot do anything about it, except to grieve, to ask so many questions and finally accept his demise even though it will always hurt," Mugabe said in a statement.
There has been no suggestion either by the authorities or Mujuru's wife of foul play, but private media reports say some family members believe the general was murdered.
Mujuru was Zimbabwe's first black army commander after independence in 1980, after serving for some months under Rhodesia's last white general Peter Walls, retiring in 1992 and becoming a member of ZANU-PF's top organ, the politburo.
Political analysts say Mujuru's death could lead to some bruising battles over the succession, but may nudge Mugabe to tackle the problem.
Many analysts say Mugabe, in power for 31 years and currently his party's presidential candidate for elections expected in the next two years, is likely to have a big say on who succeeds him if and when he decides to step down.
There are unconfirmed reports that General Mujuru was pressing Mugabe to step down before the next poll.
Mugabe was forced to form a unity government with Tsvangirai's MDC after disputed elections in 2008. But their fragile coalition is haggling over democratic reforms.
At the funeral, Mugabe said Zimbabweans should defend Mujuru's contribution to freedom by pursuing economic empowerment policies, including a drive to force foreign firms to sell majority shares to blacks over the next five years.
(Reporting by Cris Chinaka; editing by Elizabeth Piper)