HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe's ruling party fired Robert Mugabe as its leader on Sunday and gave the 93-year-old less than 24 hours to quit as head of state or face impeachment, an attempt to force a peaceful end to his 37 years in power after a de facto coup.
Mugabe, the only leader Zimbabwe has known since independence from Britain in 1980, was replaced by Emmerson Mnangagwa, the deputy he sacked this month, a senior party official told a news conference.
In scenes unthinkable just a week ago, the announcement was met by cheers from the 200 ZANU-PF delegates packed into the party's Harare headquarters to seal the fate of Mugabe, whose support has crumbled in the four days since the army seized power.
Mugabe's 52-year-old wife Grace, who had harbored ambitions of succeeding her husband, was also expelled from the party, along with at least three cabinet ministers who had formed the backbone of her 'G40' political faction.
Speaking before the meeting, war veterans' leader Chris Mutsvangwa said Mugabe was running out of time to negotiate his departure and should leave the country while he could.
"He's trying to bargain for a dignified exit," he said.
He then followed up with threat to unleash the mob onto Mugabe if refused to go, telling reporters: "We will bring back the crowds and they will do their business."
Moments after the vote was taken to remove Mugabe, the delegate hall erupted in applause.
"The president is gone. Long live the new president," Mutsvangwa, who has led an 18-month campaign to remove Mugabe shouted, according to cellphone footage posted online.
Mnangagwa, a former state security chief known as "The Crocodile," is now in line to head an interim post-Mugabe unity government that will focus on rebuilding ties with the outside world and stabilizing an economy in freefall.
On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets of Harare, singing, dancing and hugging soldiers in an outpouring of elation at Mugabe's expected overthrow.
His stunning downfall in just four days is likely to send shockwaves across Africa, where a number of entrenched strongmen, from Uganda's Yoweri Museveni to Democratic Republic of Congo's Joseph Kabila, are facing mounting pressure to quit.
Men, women and children ran alongside the armored cars and troops who stepped in this week to oust the man who has ruled since independence from Britain in 1980.
Under house arrest in his lavish 'Blue Roof' compound, Mugabe refused to stand down even as he watched his support from party, security services and people evaporate in less than three days.
His nephew, Patrick Zhuwao, told Reuters the elderly leader and his wife were "ready to die for what is correct" rather than step down in order to legitimise what he described as a coup.
But on Harare's streets, few seemed to care about the legal niceties as they heralded a "second liberation" for the former British colony and spoke of their dreams for political and economic change after two decades of deepening repression and hardship.
"These are tears of joy," said Frank Mutsindikwa, 34, holding aloft the Zimbabwean flag. "I've been waiting all my life for this day. Free at last. We are free at last."
The huge crowds in Harare have given a quasi-democratic veneer to the army's intervention, backing its assertion that it is merely effecting a constitutional transfer of power, rather than a plain coup, which would entail a diplomatic backlash.
Despite the euphoria, some Mugabe opponents are uneasy about the prominent role played by the military, and fear Zimbabwe might be swapping one army-backed autocrat with another, rather than allowing the people to choose their next leader.
"The real danger of the current situation is that having got their new preferred candidate into State House, the military will want to keep him or her there, no matter what the electorate wills," former education minister David Coltart said.
The United States, a long-time Mugabe critic, said it was looking forward to a new era in Zimbabwe, while President Ian Khama of neighboring Botswana said Mugabe had no diplomatic support in the region and should resign at once.
(By MacDonald Dzirutwe and Joe Brock; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Angus MacSwan)