Zimbabwe Calm,Mugabe Urged to Step Down

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) -- Zimbabweans faced another day of uncertainty amid quiet talks to resolve the country's turmoil and the likely end of President Robert Mugabe's decades-long rule. Seizing on the political limbo to speak out, a range of voices urged Mugabe to step aside and for the country to transition into free and fair elections.

Mugabe has been in military custody, reportedly with his wife, and there was no sign of the recently fired deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa, who fled the country last week.

The military remained in the streets of the capital, Harare. Southern African regional officials were meeting on the crisis in neighboring Botswana, and South African ministers had arrived in Harare for talks with the military and Mugabe.

A joint statement by more than 100 civil society groups urged Mugabe, the world's oldest head of state, to peacefully step aside and asked the military to quickly restore order and respect the constitution. A joint statement by churches also appealed for calm.

A Zimbabwean vice president who was fired in 2014, Joice Mujuru, called for "free, fair and credible elections" following a transition arrangement that draws from a range of communities. Peace can be realized only "through maximum restraint," she told reporters, saying she was heartened by assurances given so far that condemn violence and encourage peace.

The Zimbabwean pastor whose #ThisFlag social media campaign last year led to the largest anti-government protests in a decade called on citizens to "stand up for peace."

"Should we just sit and wait or shall we at least be part of this transition process?" Evan Mawarire asked, urging that citizens not wait for regional leaders to broker the next phase.

Across the country, Zimbabweans were enjoying freedoms they haven't had in years. The shift to military control brought a kind of fresh air.

For once, Zimbabweans weren't contending with bribe-seeking police officers who mounted roadblocks every few miles (kilometers).

Soldiers manning the few checkpoints on roads leading into downtown Harare greeted motorists with a smile, searching cars without hostilities and wishing motorists a safe journey.

Street vendors who endured police raids after Mugabe ordered their removal were working without hassles. Trade unions urged workers to go about their business.

"The situation is quite OK because they are now returning to their jobs," said one Harare resident, Clinton Mandioper.

Human rights groups urged respect for rights as the drama played out.

Amid questions about the whereabouts of first lady Grace Mugabe, one Namibian newspaper, the New Era, reported that the country's foreign minister denied she had fled there.

The U.S. Embassy advised citizens in Zimbabwe to "limit unnecessary movements" as political uncertainty continues. The British government also urged its citizens to avoid large gatherings and any demonstrations.

(KA)