BRITISH government diplomats have held secret talks in Zimbabwe aimed at persuading Robert Mugabe to hand over power and return his devastated nation to the Commonwealth, it was claimed last night.
Senior sources in London and Zimbabwe told Scotland on Sunday that the dictator's closest allies have been pressing the British government to relax its stance against Mugabe in advance of an attempted breakthrough in the stalemate at the G8 summit in Scotland this week.
And they claimed that Foreign Office diplomats have already travelled to Zimbabwe to begin clandestine negotiations with representatives of the hated dictator's regime, with a view to returning the nation to the Commonwealth, three years after it was suspended.
But the proposed 'peace plan' for Zimbabwe would require Mugabe to resign from the presidency and withdraw from the public eye - although he could retain an over-arching role as the 'Father of the Nation'.
The remarkable behind-the-scenes activity is the backdrop for an acceleration in the pro-Mugabe campaign to be waged during the Gleneagles summit by his prominent supporters, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and President Ben Mkapa of Tanzania.
The reminder of the political row over the African dictator could cast a shadow over Tony Blair's attempts to keep the continent's economic plight at the heart of the summit agenda.
Details of the mounting diplomatic offensive emerged as international opposition to Mugabe's regime reached its highest level for several months - principally over a "slum clearance" programme that has left hundreds of thousands of his poorest citizens homeless.
The Home Office last week agreed to defer the deportation of a leading Zimbabwean opposition figure amid mounting pressure to halt the forced removal of asylum seekers fleeing Mugabe's regime.
But Commonwealth members are becoming increasingly concerned that the festering row over Mugabe could disrupt the forthcoming Commonwealth heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Valletta, Malta this November. The Zimbabwean issue dominated a seminar at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London on Friday, with most non-white members arguing that the ban should be lifted and Mugabe's government be returned to the organisation.
A source who attended the meeting, and asked not to be named, confirmed that talks between members of the secretariat and representatives of Mugabe's government have started in London and Harare.
"They were fairly low level, but the Commonwealth is concerned that the Zimbabwean issue could damage - perhaps wreck - the [Commonwealth] club," the source added.
The main point of contact between the Blair and Mugabe governments is the veteran nationalist and Mugabe stalwart, Dr Nathan Shamuyarira, 76.
A Foreign Office (FCO) spokeswoman last night said the department "does not recognise" accounts of British involvement in low-level contacts with Zimbabwe, but refused to comment on claims that UK diplomats were already in Harare.
An FCO insider last night insisted that the public "should not assume that nothing is happening on Zimbabwe below the waterline".
He added: "It doesn't really serve anyone to have Mugabe isolated."
Supporters of the Zimbabwe opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said the 'peace plan' discussed by Foreign Office officials and now the Commonwealth Secretariat involves Mugabe, who is 82 next year, retiring early and disappearing from public view. The deal could see him granted immunity from prosecution for crimes against his own civilian population.
Mugabe would most likely be succeeded by his recently appointed vice-president, Mrs Joyce Mujuru, whose husband is the massively wealthy and powerful former commander of the ZNA, Solomon Mujuru.
The first fruits of any agreement would be Zimbabwe's early return to the Commonwealth - perhaps as early as the summit in Malta in five months' time - thus ending a crisis that has been going on since Mugabe launched his violent land reform programme five years ago.
Mbeki and Mkapa will head for Scotland poised to warn Tony Blair and also remind the British government that unless the burning Mugabe issue is solved soon, the future of the multicultural Commonwealth 'club' is in doubt.
The African Union last week rejected pressure from Britain and the US for it to intervene in Zimbabwe amid furious condemnation of the slum-clearance scheme.
Desmond Orjiako, a spokesman for the AU, which represents 53 African states, said: "I do not think it is proper for the AU commission to start running the internal affairs of members' states."
Another AU source in the Tanzanian capital, Dar-es-Salaam, told Scotland on Sunday last night: "Presidents Mbeki and Mkapa plan to work together in Scotland.
"They plan to tell G8 leaders that Robert Mugabe and his ruling party Zanu (PF) won last March's general election, which African observers judged as free and fair, and that the west hates him not because he is a bad leader, but because he has returned the land to its rightful owners - Zimbabwe's blacks."
Kate Hoey, a former Labour minister who last week urged Blair to use G8 to force Mbeki to condemn Mugabe's behaviour, said Zimbabwe could not be returned to the international fold under its present regime.
"I don't doubt that these low-level negotiations are going on, but I don't see how Mugabe could ever be brought back into the international community," said the MP, who will tomorrow open a Commons debate on the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe.
"He isn't going to change his policy - it's too late for that - and he has done too many terrible things. We should be using G8 to tackle African dictators, as well as its poverty, rather than trying to win them round."