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Arrest, disputes threaten Zimbabwe's power-sharing government

Zimbabwe's power-sharing government is threatened by the arrest of key opposition leader Roy Bennett and a disagreement over the sharing of cabinet posts.

Bennett, a key adviser to new Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, was arrested by Zimbabwean authorities yesterday at the Charles Prince airport, a small private airport on the outskirts of Harare. He was picked up at 3 p.m. Zimbabwe time (8 a.m. EST), according to Nqobizitha Mlilo, a spokesman for Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Bennett had been named to be deputy minister of agriculture in the new government of national unity, in which President Robert Mugabe would share power with the new prime minister, Tsvangirai. However, Bennett heard that there was a warrant for his arrest on charges that he was plotting to overthrow the Mugabe government. It is understood that Bennett feared he would be tortured after his arrest and he was about to fly out of Zimbabwe to South Africa.

Bennett, a former MDC member of parliament, was jailed for 8 months in 2005, after being convicted by parliament of pushing one of Mugabe's cabinet ministers to the ground. So the filthy conditions of Zimbabwe's jails are not new to him.

News of Bennett's latest arrest came as Mugabe and Tsvangirai were embroiled in stormy meeting at State House that delayed the swearing in of cabinet ministers, according to Nelson Chamisa, who was to be sworn in as the new Minister of Information, and who issued this newsletter on the new government.

Tsvangirai and Mugabe were to swear in 30 cabinet ministers, divided between their parties. But Mugabe presented a list of 22 cabinet ministers to be sworn in from his Zanu-PF party. Tsvangirai refused to accept Mugabe's demand, which breaks the terms of the agreement to form the power-sharing government. Tsvangirai also demanded the immediate release of Bennett.

Mugabe and Tsvangirai and their top advisers were locked in a heated meeting for several hours, to try to reach some agreement as to how to move forward with the new government, according to Nelson Chamisa, an MDC member of parliament and who had been designated to be the new minister of Information Technology. In the end, a compromise was reached and a few extra cabinet ministers were sworn in from each party.

Many in Zimbabwe look to the new power-sharing government as the only sign of hope to end Zimbabwe's humanitarian crisis, which includes a cholera epidemic that has killed at least 3,500 people and inflation that is estimated to be more than one billion percent.

But the arrest of Roy Bennett and Mugabe's action to boost his share of cabinet ministers puts the formation of the new government off to a very rocky start.