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Day-to-day control of Zimbabwe is now in the hands of a small cabal of military officers and President Robert Mugabe is "being managed" by the men Zimbabweans call "the securocrats" to ensure that they retain power, according to senior military and government sources.

"I would not call it a coup, as such, but an interim measure that is meant to stabilize the country at this critical moment," said the head of a key government agency who is also a close Mugabe confidante, speaking on condition of anonymity.

For many years, the military has had a significant role in running Zimbabwe, which was nominally a parliamentary democracy: Everything from the revenue service and the national railways to the Immigration Department and the electoral commission is headed by an active or retired armed forces general.

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But one of the generals now in charge said that after an as-yet-unpublicized official vote count revealed that Mr. Mugabe had lost the presidential vote on March 29 -- "Mugabe lost" -- a small clique of senior officers, who fought together as guerrillas in Zimbabwe's war of liberation, took over the running of the country.

A secretive committee called the Joint Operations Command is making all major decisions and supervising each key department, including the electoral commission and the national reserve bank, diplomats and analysts confirm. The JOC is made up of the heads of the intelligence service, police, prisons and each of the armed services, and is chaired by the toughest of the hawks, Defence Forces Commander General Constantine Chiwega. Many of these men said in the weeks before the election that they would refuse to accept a victory for anyone other than Mr. Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party.

In the days since the vote, the military have deployed across the country, with two senior officers in each of hundreds of local government districts, overseeing a web of paramilitaries and security officials, the general said.

There is already considerable evidence of their work on the ground: Youth militias and infamous "war veterans" have begun campaigns of grassroots terror in rural areas that voted for the opposition, staging public beatings of known or suspected MDC supporters and burning down their houses. At least one man has died in the violence, and dozens have been hospitalized.

At the same time, the military is now running the electoral agency. The general said the JOC will manage the run-off of the presidential ballot, using military personnel as the polling supervisors in every voting station, just as it is now directly supervising the "recount" of parliamentary votes.

The electoral agency says that this Saturday it will recount results from the parliamentary election that gave a victory to the combined opposition, the first time ZANU-PF has lost control of an arm of government since independence in 1980. The government says poll staff were bribed by the Movement for Democratic Change to cheat for the opposition and so 21 constituencies must be recounted.

ZANU-PF would need to retake nine seats to regain its parliamentary majority. Last week, soldiers removed the ballot boxes from the elections operation centre where the count was to be held and hid them off the premises, and the commission has since refused to allow any opposition or independent observers access, citing "national security."

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In the middle of all this, Mr. Mugabe remains nominally in charge. "He has only veto power, if you will; he doesn't have the capacity to say 'do this,' " a Western diplomat based in Harare said.

But the civilian source who has been party to JOC meetings said Mr. Mugabe would retain leadership. "The arrangement is just temporary because once he wins [the run-off vote]as the army expects him to, he will be back in charge."

The MDC has been insisting for nearly a week that a "soft coup" has occurred in Zimbabwe. "This is, in a sense, a de facto military coup," opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai told reporters in Johannesburg a few days ago. "They have rolled out military forces across the whole country to prepare for a run-off and try to cow the population. It's an attempt to try to create conditions for Mugabe to win."

But independent analysts say it's not a coup, rather that those who once controlled the country from the shadows have simply been driven to step out and do it in the light.

"There hasn't been a coup; ... there is no coup here, the same people who have been in power have been making sure they will not be removed by an election," said Jonathan Moyo, who was once one of Mr. Mugabe's closest henchmen, but split with the party and was just re-elected as an Independent opposition member of Parliament. Mr. Mugabe is like "a weakened CEO" who rules at the pleasure of a more powerful board of directors, he said. "He's a hostage President who is a product of securocrats."

Intelligence chief Didymus Mutasa, who has emerged as the civilian mouthpiece of the leadership, boisterously denied that anyone but Mr. Mugabe was in charge.

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"President Mugabe is still in charge and that is a fact," he said in an interview. "Those people who are telling you that [the military now rules]are wishing for bad things for this country. There is nothing like a coup in this country. It is a falsification of the British who have failed to turn the tables against the ZANU-PF. Wait until the run-off, we will beat them overwhelmingly and then they will shut up."

The general described a meeting held in Murombedzi, where Mr. Mugabe is from, on the day after the election, with the President and a handful of generals, at which it was agreed that the military would now lead. They moved quickly, he said, because they expected that opposition supporters would take to the streets when they learned of their victory, an eventuality they staved off, in part, by stalling the release of results and keeping a tight hold on the news media.

They agreed that they would stage a run-off, after taking measures to ensure a ZANU-PF win, with Mr. Mugabe as their candidate.

While the MDC insists that Mr. Tsvangirai won the poll outright, independent observers said that he either obtained a razor-thin majority or led but did not win the required 50 per cent plus one to clinch a victory on the first ballot.

The opposition has struggled without success since the election to tip the balance of power. The party lodged a suit in the Mugabe-appointed High Court seeking to force the release of the presidential vote, but lost; it called for rolling strikes beginning yesterday to run until results were released, but few Zimbabweans, struggling to survive in their shattered economy, took part.

The MDC leadership has reversed its position repeatedly on whether it will participate in a run-off, should one be held, and is clearly torn between refusing to participate in what diplomats already say will be a nasty and unfair fight and the knowledge that if it does not contest a second round, the government will move ahead regardless and reinstall Mr. Mugabe.

Regional leaders have offered little support. While some are clearly frustrated with Mr. Mugabe and whomever now backs him, they have opted to defer to South African President Thabo Mbeki, who incensed Zimbabweans this week with a public declaration that "there is no crisis" in the country.

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