David Cameron faces a dilemma over whether to attend a summit between Africa and the European Union after President Robert Mugabe was formally invited to attend.
The invitation was made despite an official ban on the Zimbabwean leader visiting any EU member state.
Gordon Brown, while prime minister, boycotted an earlier EU-Africa summit attended by Mr Mugabe in Lisbon in 2007. He also ruled that no British minister would be present. Last night (Sunday) Downing Street declined to say whether Mr Cameron would stay away from the conference, due to take place in Brussels in April.
Kate Hoey, the Labour MP who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on Zimbabwe, urged the Prime Minister to boycott. "If he [Mr Mugabe] now is to be there, then I would call on our Prime Minister to follow the principled lead of his predecessor Gordon Brown," she said.
Mr Mugabe, the oldest leader in Africa who turns 90 on February 21, was re-elected last year amid accusations of widespread vote rigging. He is accused of presiding over serious human rights abuses, claiming thousands of lives, during his 33-year rule. The EU banned Mr Mugabe and a raft of his allies from visiting any member state in 2002. This measure also froze any assets they hold in EU banks. However, the travel ban does not prevent Mr Mugabe from attending international gatherings. Aldo Dell'Ariccia, the EU ambassador to Zimbabwe, confirmed that Mr Mugabe would be welcome in Brussels. "President Mugabe is invited to the summit and I hope he will attend along with all the other leaders who have been invited," he said.
The ambassador denied this was a softening of the EU's attitude towards Mr Mugabe. "There are international laws that have to be respected and these make exceptions for heads of state that are on targeted measures to be allowed to attend summits," he said.
In practice, the EU has taken a softer line towards Mr Mugabe since he established a coalition government in 2009. This process continued after he won last year's election, which was comparatively free of violence, and introduced a new constitution.
Last year, EU foreign ministers took 81 Zimbabwean ministers and officials off the list of those subject to travel bans and asset freezes. It also lifted restrictions on the state company handling exports from Zimbabwe's rich diamond fields. Only Mr Mugabe is still on the list, along with his wife, Grace, and eight generals and security officials.
The United States, by contrast, continues to impose targeted sanctions on a large number of ministers, officials and state companies. America has made clear that Mr Mugabe will not be welcome at an African leaders' summit due to be hosted by President Barack Obama in Washington later this year.
Any dealings with Mr Mugabe would be politically poisonous for Mr Cameron. No senior British minister has met him since 2004.