|Solomon Mujuru was the husband of vice president Joice Mujuru, right [Reuters]
General Solomon Mujuru, a former Zimbabwean military chief and guerrilla leader in the country's independence war, has died in a fire at one of his homes, Zimbabwe's army commander said on Tuesday.
The cause of the fire was unclear, but police said Mujuru's body was "burned beyond recognition".
Mujuru, who was 62, headed Zimbabwe's military for more than a decade after independence in 1980.
His widow, Joice Mujuru, is the country's vice president. Her supporters are vying for supremacy within their party should Mugabe die or retire.
Mugabe's ZANU-PF party has been plagued by disputes over who will succeed him. Mujuru's wife leads a powerful faction in Mugabe's party.
In the past, Mugabe has favoured Joice Mujuru, 56, to succeed him, making her his first vice president above his veteran colleague, John Nkomo, 77, his second vice president .
However, she counted on the support of her husband, who still commanded loyalty in the military for his role in helping sweep Mugabe into power at independence. Her husband's power base was seen as the foundation of her political fortunes.
After his retirement, Mujuru acquired an empire of farms, properties, mines and other interests that made him one of wealthiest and most influential figures in the top echelons of Mugabe's party and its policymaking politburo.
"His death leaves the party in a shambles. He was holding it together and we will now see more infighting," said John Makumbe, a political scientist at Zimbabwe's main university.
"I don't think [Joice Mujuri] will be able to do it alone," said Makumbe.
Simon Khaya Moyo, the fourth ranking official in Mugabe's party, said Mujuru had long fought for unity in Zimbabwe.
"He was the glue to our future," he said. "None of us would have the audacity to betray him."
Mugabe has yet to comment on Mujuru's death.
Makumbe, the political scientist, said the fire raised rumours of foul play ahead of an official statement. He said Mujuru was "a man of few words who was respected" among the younger political and military hierarchy.
Mujuru was known to have had sharp disagreements with political colleagues over Mugabe's possible retirement.
He wanted to make way for younger leaders he favoured, earning him rebukes from Mugabe hardliners, Makumbe said.
Mugabe has acknowledged deep divisions in his party and has said he cannot leave office until he has resolved them and unified the party ahead of elections.