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Scramble to save deal on Mugabe sanctions

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will hold urgent talks with European leaders about Zimbabwe on Sunday after plans to impose United Nations sanctions on Robert Mugabe’s brutal regime collapsed in disarray.

Russia and China used their vetoes in the UN Security Council to block the measures — only three days after the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, signed a statement endorsing financial penalties against leading figures in Harare.

Brown had told MPs on Thursday of a ”major breakthrough” at the Group of Eight meeting on Zimbabwe, with Russia now signed up to sanctions. William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary, accused him on Saturday of being ”clearly over-confident” about the deal, with questions now being asked about the government’s diplomatic skills.

The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, accused the Russians of double-dealing, adding: ”The vote yesterday showed that, in the end, the Russians and the Chinese — I wouldn’t quite say put two fingers up — effectively blocked the action. The Russians and Chinese were briefing in all sorts of directions.”

Downing Street said Brown would discuss the way forward in Paris on Sunday with the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and European Commission President José Barroso.

Options include expanding an EU ban on travel to leading members of Mugabe’s regime and taking measures against companies owned by 14 individuals close to the regime, who would have been targeted by the UN motion unsuccessfully proposed by Britain and the United States.

It is understood that the Foreign Office and the US State Department realised on Friday, hours after Brown’s parliamentary statement, that Moscow was backtracking amid speculation of a difference of opinion within the Russian government, but decided to push ahead with the vote to flush positions into the open.

A Downing Street spokesperson said those who vetoed the proposed economic sanctions, arms embargo and travel ban ”must now take responsibility for the failure of the Security Council to act”.

Brown will still ask for a UN envoy to be sent urgently to Harare. Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian former UN secretary general, offered his help in negotiating a peaceful solution to the crisis. He told the Observer: ”They are talking of sending UN envoys now, and already I have talked to people involved, and I am offering advice and my services. Of course I would help because I am an African.”

Britain may also take bilateral measures with the US. But these may lack the moral authority of a united UN front against Mugabe, thus strengthening what is widely seen as his illegitimate grip on power.

There was jubilation among Mugabe’s supporters at the vetoes. His Information Minister, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, said he wanted to ”thank those who helped defeat international racism disguised as multilateral action at the UN”, adding that the UN should have nothing to do with member states’ elections.

The blocking of sanctions was also welcomed by South Africa, which said sanctions might have been detrimental to the talks between Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change of Morgan Tsvangirai taking place in Pretoria.

The British ambassador to the UN, John Sawers, pointedly described Russia’s decision as ”inexplicable”, adding: ”The Security Council has failed to shoulder its responsibility to do what it can to prevent a national tragedy deepening and spreading its effects across Southern Africa.”

His US counterpart, Zalmay Khalilzad, said the Russians had seemed supportive of sanctions all week and then ”something happened in Moscow”. That gave China, which has a growing reputation for exploiting Africa’s oil and mineral stocks with scant regard for human rights, an excuse to veto the sanctions.

South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a vocal critic of Mugabe, meanwhile, expressed frustration that most African leaders have remained mum on Mugabe’s regime.

Only a handful of African countries have said they refuse to recognise his rule.

Speaking during a visit to the UK, Tutu said: ”Obviously it would have been wonderful if there had been unanimous condemnation by all the leaders of Africa, but politicians are politicians.” —

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