A top Zimbabwe general said Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai was a security threat fronting Western interests, which justified military involvement in politics, state media reported on Thursday.
President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF is fighting with Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change over a new constitution and a date for elections after being forced into a unity government in 2009.
Douglas Nyikayaramba, a brigadier-general in the Zimbabwe National Army, told the official Herald newspaper in an interview that Tsvangirai and his MDC party were working with Western powers to remove Mugabe from power.
"Tsvangirai doesn't pose a political threat in any way in Zimbabwe, but is major security threat. He takes instructions from foreigners who seek to effect regime change in Zimbabwe," Nyikayaramba told the Herald.
"This is what has invited the security forces to be involved because we want to ensure we protect our national security interests," he said.
Nyikayaramba's comments came after Tsvangirai last weekend challenged military chiefs to remove their uniforms if they wanted to challenge him politically.
Tsvangirai and his officials were not immediately available for comment. They were travelling in Spain.
"WILL DIE FOR MUGABE"
Defence chiefs in Zimbabwe have in the past publicly backed Mugabe's candidature ahead of elections and have vowed never to salute a leader who did not take part in the country's 1970s independence war, a reference to Tsvangirai.
The MDC says security forces should stay out of politics and that the public support for Mugabe is meant to intimidate the population into backing the veteran leader.
The coalition has helped stabilise the economy and reduced political violence, but is fraught with squabbles over how to share executive power and MDC demands to reform the security apparatus, which ZANU-PF rejects.
Mugabe, 87, in power since independence in 1980, and his ZANU-PF wants elections to be held this year but Tsvangirai says without a new constitution and electoral reforms, the ballot would not be free and fair.
The unity government was formed after a disputed election in 2008 that was marred by violence.
"President Mugabe will only leave office if he sees it fit or dies. No one should be talking about his departure at the moment. We will die for him to make sure he remains in power," Nyikayaramba said.