SALISBURY, Zimbabwe -- Prime Minister Robert Mugabe Wednesday fired Joshua Nkomo, a member of his Cabinet and former guerrilla partner, charging him with plotting a coup that could have killed 2 million people.
Mugabe, who also announced a Cabinet reshuffle, told a news conference he had fired two other ministers from Nkomo's minority Patriotic Front.
'We have decided on this course after finding they were implicated in the whole exercise of stockpiling arms and buying farms to use as bases in waging an armed struggle against the legitimately elected government of Zimbabwe,' Mugabe said.
'And as a government we have decided that those people we believe are implicated should cease to be ministers forthwith.'
Interviewed at his Salisbury suburban home, Nkomo -- who fought with Mugabe against white-rule in Rhodesia before it became Zimbabwe -- denied he had sought South African backing for a coup as the prime minister also charged.
'He is telling a straighforward lie,' Nkomo said, adding he heard of his firing from reporters and had waited all day for a meeting with Mugabe.
'I suppose Mugabe has worked this out,' he said about what effect the moves would have. 'One hopes there is no strife. It would be a tragedy.'
The prime minister told the news conference 'I have decided to drop Mr. Nkomo, Mr. Josiah Chinamano (transport minister) and Joseph Msika (natural resources minister).'
'It cannot be denied that the arms were being hoarded for the purpose of trying to overthrow my government,' Mugabe said.
Huge amounts of arms had been uncovered on farms owned by Nkomo and his party, including 2 million rounds of small-arms ammunition, Mugabe said.
'These bullets were meant for people, and if they had hit their target this means that 2 million innocent lives would have been lost in any attempt to overthrow my government,' he said.
Mugabe told the news conference that two other Cabinet ministers from Nkomo's party were welcome to stay in the government.
The prime minister said the loyalty of some senior army commanders drawn from Nkomo's former guerrilla force was being investigated.
'There are a few commanders we believe are responsible for hiding and holding arms,' he said. 'They will have their cases reviewed by us.'
The prime minister made no comment on the impact of his actions on more than 20,000 former Nkomo guerrillas who have been blended into Zimbabwe's integrated national army.
Mugabe labeled the stockpiling of arms 'an expression of utter dishonesty.'
'We feel cheated,' he said. 'Those we trusted as partners have turned against us. We have learned a great lesson but we will not let it divide us.'