Zimbabwean officials threatened on Thursday to stop Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader, from travelling to South Africa, where regional leaders meet this weekend for a summit set to be dominated by the Zimbabwe crisis.
By Tony Hawkins in Harare and Tom Burgis in Pretoria
Officials at Harare’s airport seized the passports of Mr Tsvangirai and two top advisers, before handing them back a few hours later without explanation.
President Robert Mugabe is set to attend the summit, where the deadlock in Zimbabwe’s post-election power-sharing talks, mediated by Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s president, will be high on the agenda.
Mr Tsvangirai is hoping to use the occasion to continue cajoling African leaders into taking a tougher line with the ageing autocrat.
Maintaining momentum has been central to his MDC party’s goal of pressuring Mr Mugabe to cede power. Mr Tsvangirai’s aides have crossed the continent in recent days urging leaders to boycott the summit.
Mr Tsvangirai and his advisers were hoping to leave on an evening flight to Johannesburg.
Their documents may have been taken by Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation. However, there was speculation that the Zimbabwe authorities had been urged to return them by South Africa.
Mr Mbeki is under pressure to show progress in the talks, and is due to assume chairmanship of the Southern African Development Community at the summit.
In a statement, the MDC said: “Zanu PF’s latest antics show that the regime is not sincere about the dialogue process. The detention is an affront to SADC, to the AU and to the broader international community who are working hard to peacefully resolve Zimbabwe’s crisis.”
The airport drama coincided with a series of leaks from the stalled negotiations, including claims that Arthur Mutambara, leader of a small breakaway wing of the MDC, had been offered – and accepted – the post of education minister in a proposed unity government. Mr Mutambara has denied signing any agreement.
Insiders said, contrary to previous reports, there was not just one but several disagreements that had resulted in the power-sharing talks being adjourned on Tuesday.
These included Mr Mugabe’s demand that his party control the police, national security and the finance ministry, while he would retain the right to hire and fire all cabinet ministers – including the prime minister, the post reportedly offered to Mr Tsvangirai.