The youth wing of Zimbabwe's ruling party accused the military chief on Tuesday of subverting the constitution for threatening to intervene in a political crisis.
President Robert Mugabe plunged the country into political crisis by sacking his vice president last week.
Vice President Emerson Mnangagwa, 75, a long-serving veteran of Zimbabwe's 1970s liberation wars, had been viewed as a likely successor to Mugabe before the president fired him on November 6.
Mnangagwa's downfall appears to pave the way for Mugabe's wife Grace to succeed the 93-year-old president, the only leader Zimbabwe has known in 37 years of independence.
Grace, 52, has developed a strong following in the powerful youth wing of the ruling ZANU-PF party.
Her rise has brought her into conflict with the independence-era war veterans, who once enjoyed a privileged role in the ruling party under Mugabe, but who have increasingly been banished from senior government and party roles in recent years.
In an unprecedented step, the head of the armed forces, Constantino Chiwenga, openly threatened to intervene in politics on Monday if the purge of war veterans did not stop.
"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," Chiwenga said in a statement read to reporters at a news conference packed with top brass on Monday.
"The current purging ... targeting members of the party with a liberation background must stop forthwith."
Mugabe was chairing a weekly cabinet meeting in the capital on Tuesday. Neither the president nor his wife responded immediately to the general's remarks, but a strong denunciation from the ruling party youth wing on Tuesday signalled that Grace's supporters were prepared to defend her.
"We will not fold out hands to allow a creature of the constitution to subvert the very constitution which establishes it," said Kudzai Chipanga, who leads the ZANU-PF Youth League, said at the party's headquarters in Harare.
PREPARED TO DIE FOR MUGABE
"Defending the revolution and our leader and president is an ideal we live for and if need be it is a principle we are prepared to die for," Chipanga said.
The rising political tension in the southern African country comes at a time when it is struggling to pay for imports due to a dollar crunch, which has also caused acute cash shortages.
Zimbabwe's state media refrained from publishing Chiwenga's statement. The Herald newspaper, which had initially posted some of Chiwenga's comments on its official Twitter page on Monday, deleted the posts without explanation.
While Mugabe's rule has been anchored by support from the military, the ageing leader does not tolerate public challenges.
As Mugabe has systematically dismissed veterans of the liberation struggle from party posts, the top echelons of ZANU-PF are now stacked with officials who did not fight in the independence war.
Mugabe could for the first time go into next year's elections without the active support of the military. War veterans broke ranks with him in 2016 and have vowed to form a broad front with the opposition to challenge his long rule.
Mnangagwa's unexpected downfall last week followed months of sometimes vitriolic attacks by Grace, who used national rallies organised by ZANU-PF youths to attack her party rivals.
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