Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe 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 of 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 seizure and redistribution of white-owned commercial farms to black Zimbabweans, have traditionally not been applied for U.N. meetings.
On Wednesday, the official Herald newspaper said Mugabe, 87, had scrapped a trip to Switzerland for an International Telecommunications Union summit after his wife Grace, Foreign Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi, chief spokesman George Charamba and three other senior officials were refused travel permits.
Private media in Zimbabwe reported that Mugabe had planned to travel with a 62-member delegation.
Harare had lodged a protest with both the Swiss government and the United Nations, the Herald said.
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, a foreign affairs official was quoted as saying.
An ITU spokesman said invitations had been sent to all members but questions of border control were left to host countries. Mugabe officials were not immediately available for comment.
The Swiss embassy in Harare confirmed some visa applications had been turned down but declined to comment on charges that Switzerland had adopted the European Union's position on ZANU-PF although it is not a member of the bloc.
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.
ZANU-PF has in the past threatened to target for seizure foreign-owned firms from countries supporting sanctions against Zimbabwe, and is now trying to force mining firms to transfer majority shareholdings to black Zimbabweans.
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 sanctions.
Mugabe, who was forced into a power-sharing government with his rival Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister, says sanctions against his party are illegal and 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 Tim Pearce)