Zimbabwe unity pact teeters on the brink of collapse

Arrest of MDC official pushes Tsvangirai to denounce Mugabe as 'dishonest partner'

Zimbabwe's troubled power-sharing government is facing its most serious crisis after the Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, declared a "temporary withdrawal" in response to the arrest of one of his main allies.

"It is our right to disengage from a dishonest and unreliable partner," he told reporters in Harare. "Whilst being in government, we shall forthwith disengage from Zanu-PF and in particular from cabinet and the council of ministers until such time as confidence and respect are restored amongst us."

The stalemate could stall all government business including attempts to reform the constitution. Mr Tsvangirai said that if the crisis intensified further, it could be resolved only by holding fresh elections under the supervision of the United Nations and the Southern African Development Community.

The former trade unionist and opposition leader has been sharing power with his bitter political rival, President Robert Mugabe, since March this year but the already rocky relationship has reached breaking-point after the arrest of Roy Bennett, a prominent member of Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party.

The Prime Minister said Mr Bennett was being "persecuted" after police arrested the aide on Wednesday on charges of terrorism, in a case that appears to lack any legal basis. "The ... detention has brought home the fiction of the credibility and integrity of the transitional government," Mr Tsvangirai said. "It has brought home the self-evident fact that Zanu-PF see us as a junior, fickle and unserious movement."

The row comes at a key juncture for the stricken southern African country, when both sides have been keen to trumpet progress made. Mr Mugabe has been pushing for Western travel bans and targeted sanctions against many of his political allies to be lifted, and Mr Tsvangirai, while opposing that move, has called for huge increases in aid to Zimbabwe.

The Prime Minister even indicated in a recent interview that he was starting to build a working relationship with the man who had formerly persecuted him with treason charges and whose goons have beaten him up and once tried to throw him from a multi-storey building. But many senior figures within the MDC have complained in private of the apparently schizophrenic nature of their governing partners. Some Zanu-PF officials are keen to work with their MDC counterparts but a hardcore of regime loyalists – thought to include the upper echelons of the police, armed forces and the feared Central Intelligence Organisation – want to sabotage the unity government.

The arrest of Mr Bennett, a former farmer and the MDC nominee for deputy agriculture minister, follows what Mugabe loyalists claim was a plot to violently overthrow the Zanu-led government. But other suspects arrested on similar charges have since been released and have launched their own counter-case, claiming torture, forced confessions and fabrication of evidence. The outspoken Mr Bennett is loathed by many in Zanu-PF and has been jailed before on charges of insulting ruling-party MPs.

Mr Tsvangirai stressed that his move did not mean the collapse of the government and insisted that MDC members would continue their parliamentary activities. But he added: "Until confidence has been restored, we can't continue to pretend that everything is well."

A spokesman from Mr Mugabe's party responded to the partial withdrawal with ambivalence yesterday. "If MDC wants to disengage ... we don't have a problem with that," said Ephraim Masawi, a Zanu-PF spokesman. "We were having problems with MDC, working together. We have been trying but it was not easy."

Mr Bennett, who had been living in Johannesburg and acting as the MDC's treasurer before the power-sharing deal, is due in court on Monday. He has denied the charges against him, including weapons violations.