updated 2/13/2009 11:56:19 AM ET 2009-02-13T16:56:19

A top official of the Zimbabwean prime minister's party who had expected to join the unity government was arrested Friday, the party said, in an early indication the country's new political partnership will be rocky.

The arrest of Roy Bennett, which party officials said was unexplained, was announced shortly before senior ministers in the coalition government were sworn in.

The inauguration ceremony was delayed in a last-minute dispute that, like Bennett's arrest, underlined the challenges of bringing the Movement for Democratic Change into government with a party that has beaten and detained opponents.

Robert Mugabe, who remains president under the unity deal, administered his rival Morgan Tsvangirai's oath as prime minister Wednesday. The two were to jointly oversee a Cabinet of 31 — 15 from Mugabe's party, 13 from Tsvangirai's and three from a breakaway opposition faction led by Arthur Mutambara.

Dispute over junior ministers
Joseph Mungwari, Tsvangirai's spokesman, said Mugabe arrived for Friday's ceremony with plans to swear-in seven ZANU-PF members as junior ministers, surprising his partners. Only senior ministers were scheduled to be sworn in Friday.

Two hours after the inauguration was to have begun, Mungwari said the top leaders were discussing the seven proposed junior ministers. The ceremony later went ahead, though it was not immediately clear how the dispute over the seven junior ministers was resolved.

Mugabe presided over Friday's inaugurations, at one point using both his hands to warmly shake the hand of Tendai Biti, a Tsvangirai aide taking over the finance ministry who has been among Mugabe's sharpest critics.

South African President Kgalema Motlanthe attended the ceremony. Motlanthe and other heads of state in the region pushed through the unity government agreement, insisting it was the only way to break Zimbabwe's political impasse and ensure political leaders could turn their attention to their country's escalating economic and humanitarian crises.

Some Tsvangirai allies say he never should have agreed to serve as prime minister alongside Mugabe, who has led the country for nearly three decades and is accused of engineering the economic collapse and trampling on democracy. Mugabe, meanwhile, was under pressure from aides in the military and government who don't want to give up power and prestige to the opposition.

Among Mugabe loyalists who held onto Cabinet posts were Didymus Mutasa, the veteran former state security minister, Patrick Chinamasa, the former justice minister who led Mugabe's negotiators in the power-sharing deal with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's party and a small splinter opposition group, and Emmerson Mnangagwa, seen as a possible successor to Mugabe in his ZANU-PF party.

Tsvangirai had released his list of Cabinet nominees earlier this week, naming Bennett as deputy agriculture minister.

Well-known figure
Bennett, a white Zimbabwean who is fluent in the local Shona language, is a well-known figure in Zimbabwe. His coffee farm in eastern Zimbabwe was seized years ago by ruling party supporters.

He was one of three white lawmakers elected during 2000 parliamentary elections. In 2005, he served several months in prison, a punishment imposed by the ZANU-PF dominated Parliament for shoving then-Justice Minister Chinamasa during a parliamentary debate after Chinamasa insulted Bennett.

More recently, Bennett was among several MDC figures listed on an arrest warrant accusing the party of planning Mugabe's violent overthrow. The plot accusations had been widely dismissed as a ploy by ZANU-PF to try to discredit its rivals.

It was not clear if the warrant resulted in Friday's arrest.

"We have been given no reason" for Bennett's arrest, said Ian Makone, an MDC spokesman. Attempts by The Associated Press to reach the police spokesman were not immediately successful.

Makone says Bennett had been planning to spend a few days with family in neighboring South Africa before being sworn in as deputy agriculture minister next week.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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