President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has been forced to cancel a trip to Geneva for a United Nations meeting this week after his wife and some of his aides were denied visas, state media said on Wednesday.
Western countries, including the United States and the European Union, imposed travel and financial sanctions on Mugabe and senior officials from his ZANU-PF party almost a decade ago over charges of rights abuses and vote rigging.
But the sanctions, which Mugabe argues are punishment for his seizures and redistribution of white-owned commercial farms to landless blacks, have traditionally not been applied for meetings organised by the United Nations.
On Wednesday, the official Herald newspaper said Mugabe had scrapped a trip to Switzerland for a summit of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) after his wife Grace, Foreign Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi, chief spokesman George Charamba and three other senior officials were refused travel permits.
The Zimbabwe government has lodged a protest with both the Swiss government and the United Nations, and the Herald quoted a foreign affairs official as saying:
We noted that this was a highly regrettable decision which was a clear violation of the United Nations headquarters host agreement and Zimbabwe's sovereign right to determine the composition of its delegation.
Mugabe's spokesmen were not immediately available for comment.
The Swiss embassy in Harare confirmed some visa applications were turned down but declined to comment on charges that Switzerland had joined the EU's position against ZANU-PF although it is not a member of the EU.
State media quoted Charamba as saying Zimbabwe had noted the Swiss position as a sign of changing times, and, without giving any details, promised an appropriate diplomatic response.
Mugabe's ZANU-PF has in the past threatened to target for seizure foreign-owned firms from countries supporting sanctions against Zimbabwe, and is now seeking to force mining firms to transfer majority shareholding to local blacks.
Early this year, ZANU-PF launched an anti-sanctions campaign, collecting signatures countrywide, and officials say it will soon approach international courts to challenge the legality of the current sanctions.
Mugabe, who was forced into a power-sharing government with rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, says sanctions against his party are illegal, not targeted as argued by Western powers.
The 87-year-old leader says the sanctions have hit state-owned companies and Zimbabwe's ability to borrow money abroad.
Critics say Zimbabwe's economic recovery from a decade-long crisis caused largely by ZANU-PF policies will be slow and hard for as long as Mugabe pursues his controversial black empowerment programmes.
(Reporting By Cris Chinaka; Editing by Mark Heinrich)