Zimbabwean opposition leader and presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai and 14 members of his entourage were detained for about 11 hours by police Wednesday in Matebeleland North province while on their way to a campaign rally.
Detained around noon, Tsvangirai and his campaign aides remained in police hands in Lupane until about 11 p.m., members of the entourage told VOA. The location is in Zimbabwe's west about 100 kilometers from Bulawayo, the second-largest city.
MDC sources said earlier that police told them he was being detained under the Public Order & Security Act, though it was unclear what provision of the draconian law, which was amended earlier this year, the authorities had considered applicable to a presidential candidate seeking to engage the Zimbabwean electorate.
Detained at Lupane police station with Tsvangirai were Movement for Democratic Change Vice President Thokozani Kupe, MDC Chairman Lovemore Moyo and Tsvangirai spokesman George Sibotshiwe, among other officials and aides.
A U.S. State Department spokesman called the detention of the opposition candidate “extremely disturbing news,” demanding Zimbabwean authorities release Tsvangirai immediately and “unharmed and untouched." Tsvangirai was badly beaten while in police hands for three days in March 2007 during an earlier crisis period.
Since his return to Zimbabwe on May 24, Tsvangirai has been rolling out his campaign for the presidential run-off election coming up on June 27 - though a series of rallies have had to be called off in the past week when police shut down venues.
Despite this, Tsvangirai is considered the front-runner in the race against President Robert Mugabe, having polled 47.9% in the first round vs. Mr. Mugabe's 43.2%.
But the electoral process has already been profoundly marred by political violence that has claimed more than 60 lives among MDC activists. Human rights groups and other nonpartisan observers say violence is mainly being perpetrated by youth militia and war veterans affiliated with Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, and that the victims are overwhelmingly supporters, members and officers of Tsvangirai's MDC.
On Tuesday Tsvangirai had to call off a rally in Manama Mission in Matabeleland South, an area MDC officials said has been sealed off by pro-Mugabe military.
Reached earlier in the day, Tsvangirai told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that at that point no charges had been preferred against him.
Speaking for the government, Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga accused Tsvangirai of playing to the international media.