Zimbabwe's newly-nominated deputy agricultural minister, Movement for Democratic Change party treasurer Roy Bennett, is being held on charges of attempting to acquire weapons.  Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai says Bennett's arrest was politically motivated and the MDC has asked for his immediate release.

Senior policemen were sent from Harare to Mutare to deal with the high-profile case that has cast a pall of gloom over Zimbabwe's new government of national unity.

State media said Bennett is accused of a plot in connection with a weapons case heard three years ago in which Peter Hitschman was cleared, but then convicted and sentenced to a jail term for possession of unlicensed weapons and ammunition.  All of the other people arrested in the Hitschman case were later released without charge.

New MDC Minister For Constitutional Affairs Eric Matinenga is an advocate for Hitschmann.  He said Bennett's name did not come up in that trial.  Hitschmann, a gunsmith, is due to be released from prison in June.

According to the MDC, Bennett was improperly arrested when he was dragged off an aircraft Friday, by people who did not identify themselves.  He was then driven at high speed to Mutare where he was locked up without an arrest warrant and denied lawyers for several hours. 

As news spread of Bennett's detention, hundreds of youths swarmed into the Mutare city center shouting his name.  Police fired live bullets to disperse them and sealed off streets around the police station.

At least 10 people were arrested in connection with the spontaneous demonstration of support for Bennett, a legendary political personality in eastern Zimbabwe.

Prime Minister Tsvangirai blamed Zanu PF party hardliners for Bennett's arrest, saying it undermined the spirit of the political agreement which led to the unity government.

Education Minister Senator David Coltart, a lawyer who was like Bennett a founding member of the MDC, said Roy Bennett had returned to Zimbabwe openly from exile in South Africa and that he could be trusted to attend court if he were put on trial.

He said the manner of Bennett's arrest smacked of vindictiveness and was possibly a move by hawks in the Zanu PF party to cause the unity government to fail.

When Bennett is charged the MDC will be trying to arrange bail for him.  Zimbabwe lawyers for human rights are still struggling to secure the release on bail of at least 13 other MDC members taken from their homes last October.