BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe, Feb 26 (Reuters) A faction of Zimbabwe's main opposition elected a South African-based former militant student leader as its head, signalling a deepening split in the party led by Morgan Tsvangirai.
The rebel faction said yesterday it had elected Arthur Mutambara as new president of the Movement of Democratic Change, and one of its leaders told a meeting of 3,000 delegates that Tsvangirai had been ''sacked''.
''We sacked him, no wonder we sacked him,'' said Gibson Sibanda, referring to Tsvangirai as ''the former president''.
Tsvangirai's supporters say the meeting was invalid.
The MDC split last year after a group led by Tsvangirai's top lieutenants disagreed with his decree that the party boycott senate elections he said were aimed at entrenching President Robert Mugabe's power.
''The MDC is here today. Those who are not here are not part of us .... they like violating the party's constitution, that is their choice and that is their destiny. Let them leave our party alone,'' said Sibanda, MDC vice-president.
Zimbabwean media has reported friction over the planned endorsement of Mutambara as new party president, a move seen by some as passing over more deserving candidates who have suffered Zimbabwe's political crisis at first hand.
OPPOSITION ''WEAKENED'' In a statement that appeared to acknowledge the tensions, Welshman Ncube, party secretary general, urged members to ''remain patient and calm''.
Tsvangirai had led the MDC since its inception in 1999 and came close to unseating Mugabe in presidential elections in 2002.
He has rejected the challenge to his leadership and analysts predict a formal split between the two MDC groups that will severely weaken the opposition.
Tsvangirai's spokesman William Bango told Reuters this week Saturday's meeting did not qualify ''legally or politically'' as an MDC congress, saying a valid one would be held in mid-March.
Analysts say that despite the split Tsvangirai is likely to emerge intact as the main challenger to Mugabe.
In his acceptance speech, Mutambara urged unity within Zimbabwe's opposition movement and told delegates: ''All the democratic forces in this country need to engage each other. We must unite to take (Mugabe's ruling party) ZANU-PF out.'' The election came a day earlier than planned and Mutambara was due to hold an inaugural rally on Sunday.
The rift in the MDC comes against the background of a deepening economic crisis blamed on Mugabe, who turned 82 on Monday and has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980.
Mugabe dismisses the MDC as a puppet of Britain, which he says has led a campaign to sabotage Zimbabwe's economy as punishment for his land seizures, which he argues were meant to return land stolen from blacks during colonialism.
Reuters SK VP0503