A faction in Zimbabwe's main opposition movement said it had suspended party leader Morgan Tsvangirai for "fascist" tendencies and failing to oust President Robert Mugabe, deepening divisions in the opposition ranks.
The group led by Tendai Biti, secretary-general of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), accused Tsvangirai, 62, and his backers of resisting a leadership change after losing a third general election to Mugabe, 90, last July and of using violence against internal challengers.
The turmoil is a gift to Mugabe, Africa's oldest leader, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980 despite frequent Western criticism over human rights and accusations of economic mismanagement.
In a statement after a day-long meeting on Saturday, Biti's faction said Tsvangirai and his deputy, Thokozani Khupe, had been suspended for deviating from democracy and failing to effectively tackle Mugabe.
"The MDC as we know it has abandoned its original founding values and principles," it said. "The party has been hijacked by a dangerous fascist clique bent on destroying the same and totally working against the working people of Zimbabwe."
Tsvangirai's faction immediately dismissed the move as unconstitutional and meaningless.
"The MDC leadership cannot be changed by a bunch of desperate power-hungry officials, a minority that cannot win a leadership contest at party congress," national party spokesman Douglas Mwonzora said.
The opposition leader has resisted pressure to quit after a devastating election defeat last year which he says was rigged by Mugabe's supporters, and analysts predict the party will break apart.
Tsvangirai has led the MDC since its formation in 1999, when the former trade unionist emerged as the biggest threat to Mugabe. However, he has failed to dislodge his rival in three presidential polls, which his MDC and many Western observers say were neither free nor fair.
While accusing Mugabe's Zanu-PF of using violence and vote-rigging to retain power, some senior MDC officials also say Tsvangirai has become bogged down by sex scandals and failed to adopt tactics to win power.
An ally of Biti, Elton Mangoma, ignited debate with an open letter early this year calling on Tsvangirai to step down.