Thursday, October 15, 2009

Zimbabwe PM cancels meet amid new doubts over unity deal

HARARE — Zimbabwe's Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai suspended a cabinet meeting Thursday amid fresh doubts over the country's unity government following the detention of one of his top aides on terrorism charges.

Roy Bennett's detention ahead of his trial next week also prompted sharp criticism from Western powers, which called for an end to what they said was harassment of Tsvangirai's supporters.

There had already been deep concern over whether longtime arch-rivals Tsvangirai and President Robert Mugabe could work together in the unity government, and Bennett's detention seemed to pose another serious threat.

"The prime minister has suspended the council of ministers' meeting and any government appointments until the Bennett issue is resolved," an official in Tsvangirai's office told AFP.

Bennett, Tsvangirai's pick as deputy agriculture minister, was sent back to jail Wednesday before his trial on Monday in a ruling his party said was a serious attack on the credibility of the inclusive government.

The Movement for Democratic Change party treasurer, accused of possessing arms for the purposes of banditry, terrorism and inciting acts of insurgency, had been free on bail since March.

He was arrested February 13, the day the unity government was sworn in.

Washington on Thursday demanded that Mugabe "end the harassment" of the former opposition, including Bennett.

The European Union presidency, currently held by Sweden, called the court's decision an act of "politically motivated abuse".

It "indicates a lack of commitment to the letter and spirit of the Global Political Agreement (GPA)," which allowed for the formation of the unity government.

British Ambassador Mark Canning said it showed "limited" political progress by the government, despite advances in the economy.

"The progress, of course, on the political front as we see from the current developments relating to Mr Bennett has been far more limited," he told journalists.

Bennett, a feisty white former coffee farmer whose land was expropriated under Mugabe's land reforms, was arrested on his return from South Africa where he fled after being implicated in an alleged plot to kill the veteran leader.

The MDC has accused Mugabe's ZANU-PF of being behind Wednesday's court order, saying it was an attack on the credibility of the unity government

"The banditry charges are trumped-up and they poison the letter and spirit of the inclusive government" and the unity deal, it said.

Minister of State in Tsvangirai's office Gorden Moyo told AFP Thursday's cancellation of the meeting was linked to the unity pact but did not give details.

"The council of ministers meeting which was supposed to be held today has been cancelled because the chairman, who is also the PM, had other pressing issues which relate to the global political agreement which he had to personally attend to and address," he said.

The two former rivals formed the unity government in February nearly a year after disputed polls plunged Zimbabwe into deeper economic and political chaos.

Botswana President Ian Khama, a rare critic of Mugabe in southern Africa, warned Thursday that the pact was in danger of collapsing if the parties failed to agree on key issues.

"It is limping along and there is a real danger that the whole thing could collapse," he told AFP in Gaborone.

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