HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) on Friday suspended a senior official who had asked party leader Morgan Tsvangirai to quit, a move which has divided a party recovering from election defeat last year.
Dozens of anti-riot police kept watch outside the MDC headquarters in central Harare as the party's national council, its top decision-making body, met.
MDC Secretary General Tendai Biti said the suspension of deputy treasurer Elton Mangoma was irregular and said members had been intimidated during a meeting he said was not properly constituted.
Biti, finance minister in a coalition government with President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party until last July, said Mangoma had not been given a proper opportunity to defend himself and the national council members had not conducted a vote as required under party rules.
"We are very frightened about the mutation of the MDC into another ZANU-PF and in my capacity as secretary general I have a duty to protect a movement, and one which so many people believe in," Biti said, speaking at his law firm in Harare.
"We have to rectify what went wrong, to make sure we have a properly constituted national council that will deal with the matter properly with respect to due process," Biti said.
Mangoma angered Tsvangirai's supporters when he sent the party leader an open letter in January asking him to resign, arguing that he had failed to push through reforms while in the four-year power-sharing government with Mugabe.
Mangoma last month said he had been assaulted by Tsvangirai loyalists while emerging from a party meeting and went on to make a police report. He said Tsvangirai had organized his beating, an accusation Tsvangirai has denied, and the case is now before the courts.
MDC spokesman Douglas Mwonzora told journalists after the national council meeting: "The actions by Mr Mangoma have seriously undermined our relationship with strategic partners. It is also further noticed that his behavior and attitude undermines the party."
Mangoma was served with his suspension letter during the meeting and will appear before a tribunal, Mwonzora said.
Tsvangirai, 61, has led the MDC since it was formed in 1999 to challenge Mugabe, the sole ruler since the former Rhodesia gained independence from Britain in 1980, and his ZANU-PF party.
But the ex-labor union leader has failed to dislodge 90-year-old Mugabe in three elections, although none of them was free or fair according to the MDC and Western observers.
Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; editing by Ralph Boulton and Janet Lawrence