* Mnangagwa laughs off coup warning
* Rift rumours emerged post-clampdown
* Some say Chiwenga is now main power (Adds union leaders freed, talks with teachers)
By MacDonald Dzirutwe
HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa dismissed rumours of a rift with his deputy, which have gathered momentum since he promised action in response to a brutal security crackdown that began last month while he was abroad.
In comments published on Friday by local media, Mnangagwa said “not a single person” had shown him evidence of divisions with vice-president Constantino Chiwenga.
It was Chiwenga who led the coup that toppled Robert Mugabe in 2017 and some newspapers have speculated he is now in charge.
But Mnangagwa countered that he and Chiwenga “are comrades and understand each other better than you think.”
The president also shrugged off calls he said he received while abroad from an ally warning him a coup was afoot.
“I laughed and advised that person to enjoy a peaceful night’s sleep,” he said.
The crackdown began in mid-January after violent protests triggered by a 150 percent increase in fuel prices.
Last week, Mnangagwa returned early from a four-nation tour when unrest escalated, promising to investigate abuses by security services and any illegal actions against protesters.
Lawyers and rights groups say that despite this, hundreds of people remain in detention, with many denied access to legal representation. They say 12 people were killed during the protests while police say three died.
Residents of Harare say scores suspected of involvement in the protests have been dragged from homes while some opposition lawmakers have gone into hiding.
On Friday, the High Court freed on bail two union leaders and two lawmakers facing subversion and violence charges respectively, lawyers said.
WHO’S IN CONTROL?
Nicknamed ‘Crocodile’, Mnangagwa was a close Mugabe ally during much of the post-colonial leader’s 37-year rule.
When he took over, Mnangagwa promised to revive Zimbabwe’s disintegrating economy and break with his predecessor’s authoritarianism. Evidence suggests he has done neither.
The persistence of the crackdown has brought speculation he is not in full control of the military, while still rising inflation continues to erode purchasing power.
Mnangagwa on Friday dismissed foreign criticism, saying while he regretted the loss of life, security forces needed to protect property and citizens.
“We have told the Western countries that they cannot ...raise concerns when they are the ones sponsoring the violence,” Mnangagwa said.
More unrest threatens. The main public sector union has backed down from plans for a national strike, citing a volatile security situation, but four more teachers’ unions said they will join next week’s planned stoppage.
The government has called for a meeting with all teachers’ unions on Monday to discuss grievances, according to a circular seen by Reuters.
Two allies of Mnangagwa - a lawmaker of his ZANU-PF party, Mayor Wadyajena, and former deputy finance minister Terence Mukupe - said last month some government members wanted to impeach him.
Towards the end of the Mugabe era, ruling ZANU-PF party and military officials publicly denied there were factions positioning to take over. But in private they were plotting.
A media spokesman for the president and his deputy did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Writing by John Stonestreet; Editing by James Macharia and Andrew Cawthorne