HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe police stormed the main opposition party headquarters and arrested its leader Morgan Tsvangirai on Wednesday as African leaders gathered in Tanzania to debate Zimbabwe's escalating political crisis.
Tsvangirai, who opposition officials say was badly beaten after an earlier police crackdown this month, was among a number of Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) officials held when heavily armed riot police entered the party's Harare offices, the MDC said.
The arrests brought immediate condemnation from Britain, the former colonial power, and from the European Union.
The MDC said Tsvangirai had been due to hold a news conference "on the escalating and systemic campaign of violence and intimidation" by President Robert Mugabe's government.
The raid looked likely to increase pressure on African leaders to use a special Tanzania summit beginning on Wednesday to censure Mugabe, who has faced a firestorm of criticism for violently cracking down on opponents of his 27-year rule.
Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett was among the first to criticise the latest arrests, saying the government appeared determined to intimidate.
"I strongly urge Mugabe and the Zimbabwean regime to heed the calls made by so many of the international community and their African neighbours to stop the oppression of the Zimbabwean people and respect their human rights," she said in a statement.
European Union president Germany said it was "deeply concerned" at the arrests and demanded access to Tsvangirai and other detained opposition politicians.
The special two-day Tanzania summit will be a test for the 14-member Southern African Development Community (SADC), accused in some quarters of not flexing its muscle against Mugabe's government.
AN ISSUE FOR AFRICA
Despite the latest crackdown, political analysts said Mugabe's regional colleagues were unlikely to follow Western calls for a tougher line -- at least publicly.
"Whatever spin the government will try to put on this, this is an emergency summit on Zimbabwe and it basically means that Zimbabwe has become an issue in Africa too," said Eldred Masunungure, a political science professor at Harare's University of Zimbabwe.
"But I don't think there is going to be the kind of public condemnation that some Western countries are calling for, and I am sure Mugabe will be happy with that," he told Reuters.
Mugabe himself was attending a meeting of his ruling ZANU-PF party's politburo, which local media has speculated could discuss whether to back his bid for an extended presidential term despite the country's gathering problems.
Mugabe, 83, has suggesting moving presidential elections back to 2010 -- giving him two extra years in office -- or simply standing as the ZANU-PF candidate for another six year term if polls are held as scheduled next year.
He was due to leave for the Dar es Salaam meeting later on Wednesday.
Zimbabwe's political turmoil comes as the country faces its worst economic crisis in decades, a meltdown that is increasingly spilling over its borders and affecting the region.
Millions of Zimbabweans have already fled the world's highest inflation rate -- 1,700 percent -- plus a jobless rate above 80 percent and food shortages.
Mugabe blames the problems on Western sabotage, saying Zimbabwe is being punished for his policy of seizing white-owned land to give to landless blacks to address imbalances left by British colonialism.
Zimbabwe officials, who often accuse the MDC of being puppets of Western powers, have recently stepped up accusations of violence against the party's supporters, charging them with a string of bomb attacks on police stations, shops and trains.
"These criminal acts...have descended into orchestrated and organised acts of terrorism," police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena said in a statement published in state media on Wednesday.