Image: Morgan Tsvangirai
Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi  /  AP
Zimbabwean Prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai at Movement for Democratic Change party headquarters in Harare on Friday.
updated 10/16/2009 11:45:47 AM ET 2009-10-16T15:45:47

Zimbabwe's prime minister on Friday withdrew, at least temporarily, from a coalition government with hard-line President Robert Mugabe, setting back already troubled efforts to end Zimbabwe's political and economic crises and international isolation.

Morgan Tsvangirai said he is withdrawing because of "persecution" of a top aide, Roy Bennett, the prime minister's nominee for deputy agriculture minister. Bennett is being tried on charges linked to long-discredited allegations that Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change party plotted Mugabe's violent overthrow.

"We are not really pulling out officially," Tsvangirai said, but made clear his party members would not attend Cabinet meetings or engage in other executive work with Mugabe's ZANU-PF party. The Movement for Democratic Change would continue parliament activities.

Friday's move demonstrates deep unhappiness within the MDC with the coalition. But Tsvangirai has repeatedly said he sees the coalition as the only way to ensure Zimbabwe's future, and he underscored that view by stopping short of bringing down the government by pulling out altogether.

ZANU-PF's reaction underlined the tensions.

"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."

Tsvangirai and Mugabe entered the unity government in February after two violence-plagued elections left the country at a political standstill and in economic ruin.

"Until confidence has been restored we can't continue to pretend that everything is well," Tsvangirai said.

'He is being persecuted'
Bennett's trial starts Monday. Bennett was arrested the day the Cabinet was sworn in February and charged with weapons violations. He was ordered back to jail earlier this week after seven months on bail, but the same court ordered him freed on bail Friday. He denies the charges against him.

"Roy Bennett is not being prosecuted, he is being persecuted," Tsvangirai said Friday.

The European Union said Thursday it is "deeply concerned" over Bennett's jailing. The bloc added it regrets "that politically motivated abuse persists in the country."

In Washington Thursday, U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters that the case against Bennett is a "blatant example of the absence of the rule of law in Zimbabwe."

Zimbabwe's neighbors had urged Mugabe, who has held power since independence in 1980, to form the partnership with former labor leader Tsvangirai. In forming their coalition, the longtime opponents pledged to work together to turn around the country's economic and political collapse.

Since the coalition was formed, Tsvangirai has condemned continuing human rights violations. Mugabe has demanded that Tsvangirai do more to get international sanctions lifted and foreign aid and investment restored.

The sanctions target top Mugabe aides, banning them from traveling abroad and freezing foreign bank accounts. Tsvangirai's extensive travels since becoming prime minister have rankled in ZANU-PF ranks.

"Our legs and hands are tied up because of the sanctions that we are facing, but the MDC continues to roam all over without being denied to go anywhere else," Masawi, the ZANU-PF spokesman, said Friday.

Efforts to ease isolation
The coalition is Mugabe's only hope for taking Zimbabwe out of international isolation, and it has brought Tsvangirai closer to power than any election.

Foreign governments and multilateral donors have expressed support for Tsvangirai, warmly welcoming him on a recent international tour. But concerns persist about propping up Mugabe, accused of trampling on democracy and ruining a once prosperous economy. Even with Tsvangirai in the government, donors prefer not to give money directly to Zimbabwe's treasury, instead working through independent aid groups.

Last month, the European Union said it would not remove sanctions targeting Mugabe and his loyalists or resume development aid until Mugabe does more to make power sharing work and restore human rights.

Ties between the 27-nation EU and Zimbabwe were severed over the expulsion of an EU election monitoring mission in 2002 and surging political violence at the time. More recently, the EU has protested continuing arrests and harassment of members of Tsvangirai's party and criticized efforts by Mugabe's party to block the appointment of a new attorney general, regional governors and the head of Zimbabwe's central bank.

More on: Zimbabwe

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