Zimbabwe's ruling Zanu PF party has opened an inquiry into its vast business holdings as part of what it says is a wider drive to stamp out corruption. The inquiry has sent a shockwave through the business community, and prompted the departure of a number of prominent business people from the country. According to the state-controlled Herald newspaper, the most prominent people close to ZANU-PF to leave the country in the last week are members of the wealthy Joshi family. Linked to the ruling party since even before independence, the Joshi family has helped ZANU-PF in acquiring interests in many top companies.

ZANU-PF's records show the party derives more than half of its declared income from dividends from its business holdings. Since independence in 1980, ZANU-PF has become a major business force in Zimbabwe. Head of the party's finances is Emmerson Mnangagwa, a man until recently tipped as President Robert Mugabe's most likely successor.

The party's April 1 announcement that a committee to investigate the party's finances was first seen as a joke. But when the committee began its work behind closed doors, it sent a shockwave throughout the business community, and several leading businessmen left the country. Added to the community's apprehension is Zimbabwe's new anti-corruption decree, which allows for detention without trial, and without any initial evidence of wrongdoing.

The government says the investigation is part of its drive to stamp out corruption, but political observers and the opposition are skeptical.

Paul Themba Nyathi, a veteran politician who fought for Zimbabwe's independence and is now spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, said the probe is a sign of possible struggle within Zanu PF over who will succeed Mr. Mugabe.

Mr. Mugabe has repeatedly said he will not leave his party's leadership post while ZANU-PF is in turmoil. Mr. Nyathi said the financial probe appeared to be part of the ruling party's effort to clean up its image among the increasingly impoverished Zimbabweans ahead of parliamentary elections in March 2005.

Members of ZANU-PF's clean up committee were not available for comment Tuesday. The committee's proceedings are not public and it is not clear whether the results of the probe will be released.