Zimbabwe arrests British pilot for flying opposition leader

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A British helicopter pilot hired to fly the Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai on the campaign trail was under arrest last night in a Harare police station with a notorious reputation after being detained on the runway of a city airport.

Brent Smyth, 31, was held yesterday morning just moments before he was due to take off from the domestic Charles Prince airport with politicians from the Movement for Democratic Change. Wessel van den Bergh, his boss at the helicopter training and charter firm ATS, based in Johannesburg, said the company was worried about their colleague. "All his paperwork was in order and the flight plans had been phoned through 24 hours before. There was no reason to arrest him, but I suppose it has probably got more to do with his passenger, eh?"

Mr Smyth was due to fly the presidential hopeful to constituencies throughout Zimbabwe over the next two days before Saturday's election. He was flying a Robinson 44, a four-seater helicopter, with Mr Tsvangirai and colleagues.

Luke Tamborinyoka, a spokesman for Mr Tsvangirai's MDC section, said: "One of our candidates, Jameson Timba, and his election agent Garikai Chuma were arrested this morning at Charles Prince airport as they were receiving campaign material. Apparently the pilot was also caught up in the raid." Mr Tsvangarai was not detained.

Zimbabwe police declined to comment on the arrests but the opposition claims that detainees are regularly beaten and tortured inside Harare central police station where Mr Smyth was taken. The British embassy and the South African department of foreign affairs are trying to secure his release.

Mr Tsvangarai, the leader of one faction of the MDC, is challenging President Robert Mugabe, 84, and his former Zanu-PF colleague Simba Makoni in Saturday's ballot against a backdrop of economic meltdown.

Two weeks ago, Zimbabwe's police chief, Commissioner-General Augustine Chihuri, told officers at police headquarters in Harare that he would not allow "puppets" of Britain and the United States to take over Zimbabwe – a clear threat to opposition candidates.

Mr Van den Bergh said: "[Smyth] sent an SMS message around seven saying 'please help, the police have arrested me'. He sent me one later on saying he was being held at Harare central police station, so we were able to get help to him."

Mr Smyth also has South African citizenship and has worked for ATS for 12 months. His fiancée was too upset to talk.