Zimbabwe opposition negotiator is accused of treason

In the strongest indication yet that the Zimbabwean regime intends to fight to the bitter end, the opposition's chief negotiator was arrested yesterday and charged with treason.

Tendai Biti, who until this week had led the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) delegation at emergency talks with Zimbabwe's ruling party, left South Africa and was arrested at Harare airport before he could be met by his lawyers. Fellow passengers said he was handcuffed and taken away in an unmarked car. His whereabouts were still unclear last night.

Yesterday, the MDC president Morgan Tsvangirai was twice arrested and released as his new campaign bus toured central Zimbabwe. He spent two hours at a police station in the town of Kwekwe, and was later detained for a further two hours in Gweru, the capital of Zimbabwe's Midlands Province. Mr Tsvangirai has now been detained four times in eight days. His spokesman said: "This is obviously just pure harassment, with police trying to impede Mr Tsvangirai's presidential campaign."

A national police spokesman, Wayne Bvudzijena, suggested that it was in his capacity as negotiator that Mr Biti had made himself guilty of treason: "He will be charged with contravening section 20 of the criminal law codification for publishing a document that was explaining a transitional strategy around 26 March which in its case is a treasonous charge," he said.

State television reported in April that Mr Biti was suspected of being the author of a plot to rig the outcome of the disputed 29 March election in which the MDC won a majority of seats. In the presidential poll, according to the official results, Mr Tsvangirai failed to secure an all-out majority, prompting a run-off against President Robert Mugabe scheduled for 27 June.

David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said that until a "credible charge" was laid against Mr Biti or he was released, it could only be assumed that his arrest was "part of the pattern of ongoing harassment intended to disrupt lawful campaigning".

Mr Miliband said the international community would hold the Mugabe government responsible for Mr Biti's safety.

Mr Biti had predicted his arrest. Before boarding his plane in Johannesburg yesterday, he said efforts to negotiate a unity government had collapsed. He said the MDC had been prepared to consider a coalition agreement but only with Mr Tsvangirai as president. "Mugabe would have no place in it,'' he said.

Mr Biti said regional leaders had failed to find a solution for Zimbabwe. He feared little would be achieved by a special envoy of the UN secretary general. An Eritrean diplomat, Haile Menkerios, is due to arrive on Monday.

Mr Tsvangirai returned to Zimbabwe on 24 May after a self-imposed exile prompted by fears for his safety. He has twice been charged with treason – including in 2002 when a video apparently showed him plotting Mr Mugabe's assassination.

Meanwhile, the 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) announced yesterday that 120 observers had arrived in Zimbabwe out of a total of 400 to be deployed for the presidential run-off. Mr Mugabe has banned Western observers and most of the media. The MDC says at least 60 of its supporters have been killed since the initial polling as part of an state-sponsored intimidation campaign orchestrated by the military. The South African President, Thabo Mbeki, who has been criticised by the MDC for being ineffective and partial in his role as SADC mediator, yesterday defended his approach.

He said South Africa would refuse to participate in "projects based on the notion that we have a right to bring about regime change".

US ambassador warns of ‘massive starvation’

The US ambassador to Zimbabwe has attacked President Robert Mugabe's regime, saying a lorry carrying American aid destined forchildren was ''hijacked'' by the authorities and the food handed out to pro-government supporters.

The ambassador, James McGee, made his remarks after the 20-tonne consignment of wheat, beans and vegetable oil was impounded and redistributed last week. "This government will stop at nothing, even starving the most defenceless people in the country – young children – to realise their political ambitions," he said.

Mr McGee was posted to Harare a year ago and has been one of the regime's most vociferous critics. He angered the Mugabe camp last month when he took Western diplomats on a tour of hospitals where victims of political violence were being treated. He reportedly paid for some of their treatment.

When Mr Mugabe launched his run-off campaign at the end of May, he threatened to throw out Mr McGee. "Tall as he is, if he continues doing that [meddling], I will kick him out of the country," he told a rally.

But the threat has done little to silence Mr McGee. After US and British diplomats were stopped at a checkpoint at gunpoint last week, he was on CNN within minutes railing against the intimidation campaign coming "directly from the top". And after the Zimbabwean government banned field operations by aid groups last Thursday, he warned of the "massive, massive starvation" that might ensue if food kept being used as a political weapon.

The lorry was already on its rounds in the east of the country when the ban was announced, US aid workers said. Mr McGee said that, at one of the schools on the round, the lorry's driver was approached by police officers and a mob led by an army colonel. The driver was accused of trying to bribe people and taken to a police station in Mutare, where he was greeted by a group, led by the Manicaland governor, Tinaye Chigudu, chanting slogans for the ruling Zanu-PF party, Mr McGee said: "The governor instructed the war veterans to distribute the food to Zanu-PF supporters at the rally. Some police officers tried to intervene to stop the looting. The governor told them, 'Stand down'." Mr McGee said that he hadlodged a complaint to the Zimbabwean Foreign Ministry.