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MDC minister charged with treason after airport arrest

Zimbabwe's new cabinet comes under threat from 'rogue' security forces

Zimbabwe's fragile power-sharing government was already falling apart last night after a deputy minister from the former opposition Movement for Democratic Change was seized at an airport in Harare and charged with treason. With the new government less than 48 hours old, "rogue elements" within the security forces are trying to sabotage the deal, according to senior MDC sources.

Roy Bennett, a white farmer who lost his land during the farm invasions, was taken into custody yesterday afternoon by intelligence agents even as the swearing-in of the rest of the new cabinet was under way on the other side of the city. Mr Bennett, who has been named as the deputy agriculture minister, had been in hiding since returning to Zimbabwe and was trying to leave for Johannesburg on a private plane. Friends of the fiery, Zimbabwean-born farmer said his passport had "been stamped and he was on the plane ready to take off".

Before the aircraft could leave, vehicles from the intelligence agency, the CIO, stormed the airfield and took Mr Bennett into custody."We are afraid this is an abduction, not an arrest," a fellow minister in the new cabinet said.

MDC officials followed the CIO agents to Goromondzi prison, a "notorious torture centre". Mr Bennett was later transferred to Marondera before being switched again to the rural area of Murewa. The targeting of Mr Bennett piled immediate pressure on Zimbabwe's precarious new government.

Last night, the MDC issued a statement which described the charges against him as "scandalous" and "politically motivated".

The abduction underlined the chaos in Harare as competing factions within Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party gave contradictory orders to the police and security services. Senior figures in the military who have frequently said they would not serve under an opposition-led administration are thought to be trying to undermine the unity government and force the MDC to walk away.

A Mugabe lieutenant, Emmerson Mnangagwa ordered Mr Bennett's release but that order has so far been ignored. "This gives the worst possible impression from every point of view," said Eddie Cross, another MDC minister in the unity government. But he said they could not be bullied into giving up: "We're determined to make this work if at all possible."

The MDC is demanding the release of political prisoners and the sacking of powerful Mugabe allies such as the central bank governor, Gideon Gono, if the unity government is to work. However, an attempt by the new Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, on Thursday to release activists, including Jestina Mukoko, underlined the problems he faces. After securing their transfer to a Harare hospital, armed police arrived and re-arrested the activists despite doctors' pleas.

Last night, concern was high for Mr Bennett, who is hated by many senior Mugabe officials.