Blair's secret deal over Mugabe

THE government was embroiled in a growing row over Zimbabwe last night, as Tony Blair was accused of hypocrisy over a secret deal allowing the country’s disgraced president, Robert Mugabe, to visit Paris.

In what was seen as an extraordinary display of double standards in the wake of government opposition to English involvement in the cricket world cup in Zimbabwe, Downing Street indicated it would turn a blind eye to France’s flouting of an EU travel ban on Mugabe.

The arrangement was seen as an attempt to mollify President Jacques Chirac amid damaged British-French relations, and strong opposition in Paris to military action in Iraq.

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In a sign of Mr Blair’s determination not to upset Mr Chirac, Downing Street refused to endorse comments by two Cabinet Ministers - Peter Hain and Clare Short - who called the French invitation "disgraceful".

In an inflammatory gesture, President Chirac has invited Mr Mugabe to a summit on 19 February despite EU-wide sanctions banning the Zimbabwean dictator and his inner circle from travelling to Europe.

Downing Street admitted yesterday there had been informal talks between London and Paris over the Mugabe visit, fuelling speculation that Mr Blair had struck a backroom deal with Mr Chirac.

The Prime Minister is thought to have agreed not to raise objections to the one-off visit by Mr Mugabe on condition France agrees to an extension of the EU sanctions, due to expire on 18 February. A decision on whether to roll over the year-long ban for another 12 months will be made by European foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday.

Speculation of a secret deal intensified when Downing Street refused to give a formal response to the French request to waive the ban. Mr Blair’s official spokesman said the government needed more time to study the proposal.

The spokesman also admitted Britain had not raised objections on previous occasions when individual EU states had applied for the sanctions to be waived, including when the Italian government invited Mr Mugabe to the World Food Summit in Rome last summer.

The diplomatic stand-off between London and Paris comes at an sensitive time for Anglo-French relations.

As one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, France has the power to veto a second resolution sanctioning military action against Iraq.

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But the Prime Minister will also be careful not to upset his French counterpart ahead of the rearranged Anglo-French summit on 4 February. President Chirac postponed the original meeting last December after the two leaders had a stand-up row at the European heads of government summit in Brussels over the European agriculture policy.

Michael Ancram, the shadow foreign secretary, said Mr Blair’s refusal to criticise France was "deplorable". He contrasted the resolute line taken by Ms Short, the international development secretary, and Mr Hain, the Welsh Secretary, with the obfuscation of No10.

Mr Hain said the Zimbabwean president "was not welcome" in Europe. The government’s views on Mugabe’s "odious" regime were well-known, he added. Ms Short said she found it "unimaginable" that the French could consider inviting Mr Mugabe to Paris.

Downing Street said Ms Short had not given the official response of the government.

A spokesman said: "Nobody underestimates the importance of sanctions and we do have to have a unanimous EU decision on sanctions. As to what our decision will be on the French formal request, I’m afraid we do have to consider it for a period."

The weak response contrasted with the government’s firm line over the England cricket team’s involvement in the world cup in Zimbabwe.

Yet its stance, which left a final decision with the cricket authorities, was widely criticised as a cowardly policy. Cricket’s international governing body, the ICC, will take a final decision today on whether it is safe for teams to honour world cup commitments in Zimbabwe. Although there was no official statement last night as the ICC president, Malcolm Speed, and tournament director, Ali Bacher, arrived back in South Africa, the six matches scheduled for Zimbabwe seem certain to go ahead.

The reaction of Zimbabwe Cricket Union [ZCU] officials in Harare suggested the ICC will give the green light for the Zimbabwe part of the tournament, mainly hosted by South Africa.

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France defended its decision to invite Mugabe, with a foreign ministry spokesman saying the provisions in the travel ban allowed for trips to conduct a political dialogue aimed at promoting democracy, the rule of law and human rights in Zimbabwe. "We are in accord with the spirit of this common European position. We respect the appropriate European procedures and it is in this context that we wanted to invite President Mugabe to take part in the France-Africa summit," he said.