By MacDonald Dzirutwe
HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwean war veterans turned on their long-time ally President Robert Mugabe, describing him as a dictator in a jolting rebuke underlining political maneuvering over his succession and mounting anger over economic woes.
The veterans, who have campaigned, often violently, for the veteran leader during presidential elections since 2000, said they were withdrawing their political support, a statement that exposed rifts in the heart of Zimbabwe's establishment.
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"(Mugabe's) leadership has presided over unbridled corruption and downright mismanagement of the economy, leading to national economic ruin for which the effects are now felt throughout the land," the Zimbabwe Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA) said.
"We note, with concern, shock and dismay, the systematic entrenchment of dictatorial tendencies, personified by the President and his cohorts, which have slowly devoured the values of the liberation struggle," the veterans added in the statement issued after a seven-hour meeting of its leaders on Thursday evening.
The 92-year-old president - the country's only ruler since independence from Britain - is looking increasingly frail and struggling to walk up stairs in public, though he has said he wants to live to 100, and denies local media reports that he has prostate cancer.
As senior members of the ruling ZANU-PF party maneuver for advantage in a post-Mugabe era, two factions have emerged, one linked to Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and one to Mugabe's wife Grace.
Veterans want Mnangagwa to succeed Mugabe, saying this would be in line with party tradition. Mugabe last month warned veterans against trying to influence the choice of who will succeed him.
"The center can not hold and I am seeing Mugabe increasingly under siege. We are in a transition now from the Mugabe era, no doubt about that," said Ibbo Mandaza, a leading academic and political commentator.
Former finance minister, Simba Makoni, who was seen as a future Mugabe successor before leaving ZANU-PF to challenge him in 2008, said on Friday the president should resign because he had failed Zimbabweans.
Political infighting has been exacerbated by an economic crisis, widely blamed on mismanagement and, more recently, the effects of a region-wide drought.
Public anger over inflation, unemployment and other hardships has poured out into the streets in a nation-wide protest movement.
In a show of support for those demonstrations, organized by activist pastor Evan Mawarire's #ThisFlag movement, the veterans accused the police of brutality against protesters.
(Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by Joe Brock and Andrew Heavens)