“They’ve just been released without charge. The police were saying he addressed an unsanctioned meeting…They were held for 8 hours before their release,” Tsvangirai’s lawyer Job Sibanda told the Associated Press.
Tsvangirai’s spokesman George Sibotshiwe told Reuters that police stopped Tsvangirai’s convoy as he campaigned ahead a presidential run-off vote and searched vehicles and passengers’ documents.
“They are saying there’s a commanding officer whom we should wait for. They are not saying why they are holding us up. It’s not an arrest but illegal detention,” Sibotshiwe said. “It appears they want to disrupt our campaign program.”
Tsvangirai was taken to a charge office in Lupane, southwestern Zimbabwe, chief Movement for Democratic Change spokesman Nelson Chamisa told news agencies. He said security personnel and other senior party officials, including the party’s deputy leader Thokozani Khupe and Chairman Lovemore Moyo, were taken as well.
“They have not given us any reason for the arrest,” Chamisa said. “The police just said our bosses want to see you.”
Tsvangirai defeated President Robert Mugabe in a March 29 presidential election, but highly disputed official results only released last month showed that he failed to win the absolute majority needed to avoid a second ballot. The run-off is scheduled for June 27.
Tsvangirai, who left Zimbabwe after the original presidential election, delayed his return late last month after his party said he was the target of a military assassination plot.
The former union leader has survived at least three assassination attempts. In 1997, unidentified assailants who tried to throw him from a 10th floor window.
Last year, he was hospitalized after a brutal assault by police at a prayer rally, and images seen around the world of his bruised and swollen face have come to symbolize the plight of dissenters in Zimbabwe.
Mugabe’s vow never to allow the MDC to take power has stoked opposition fears that the ruling ZANU-PF will use intimidation and vote-rigging to extend the veteran ruler’s 28-year rule.
The MDC says 50 people have been killed by Mugabe’s supporters since the election. On Wednesday, it said soldiers and ZANU-PF activists had beaten and threatened to shoot Zimbabweans who wanted to meet and support Tsvangirai during his campaign.
“Mugabe is determined to turn the whole country into a war zone in order to subvert the will of the people and steal the June 27th election by any means possible,” Tsvangirai said while campaigning in Bulawayo.
Mugabe and his ZANU-PF say the opposition is responsible for violence.
News of Tsvangirai’s detention came as it was revealed that three aid agencies, including CARE International and Britain’s Save the Children, had been ordered to cease operations in Zimbabwe over allegations that they had campaigned for the MDC before the March 29 election. CARE International has denied the charge.
Mugabe is attending a United Nations food agency summit in Rome. During his speech Tuesday at the Food and Agriculture Organization meeting, he accused the West of trying to bring about “illegal regime change” in his country.
“If they want to continue with their programs, they know what to do. They must choose between politics and genuine humanitarian work,” Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga said, adding that Zimbabwe did not want to rely on NGOs.
U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch accused Zimbabwe of using food as a political weapon and urged it to reverse the suspensions.
The United States said it was saddened by the decision, saying it would mean that more than 100,000 Zimbabweans would go hungry this month.
“This further displays the regime’s callous indifference to the Zimbabwean people’s desperate plight and pleas for change,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
Zimbabwe’s once prosperous agricultural sector has collapsed since 2000, when Mugabe’s government began seizing thousands of white-owned farms as part of a land redistribution policy designed to help poor blacks.
Many of the farms have ended up in the hands of senior officials with ZANU-PF and other supporters, while others have been tilled by farmers who lack experience and capital.
Zimbabwe now suffers chronic shortages of meat, milk, bread and other basic foodstuffs and relies on imports and handouts from foreign governments and relief agencies to feed its people.