Gordon Brown will deliver a dramatic snub to Robert Mugabe by boycotting a summit of European and African leaders to be attended by the Zimbabwean President.
Announcing his decision today, the Prime Minister says he is not prepared to be at the same conference as a leader responsible for the "abuse" of his own people, widespread torture and the mass intimidation of political opponents.
In his first policy statement on Zimbabwe since becoming Prime Minister, Mr Brown declared that Mr Mugabe's presence at the European Union-African Union summit in Lisbon on 8/9 December would undermine the event. Britain will adopt an "empty chair" policy and stay away if, as expected, the Zimbabwean President attends after the EU suspends its ban on him travelling to Europe.
Portugal, which has called the first EU-AU summit for seven years, has invited Mr Mugabe because other African leaders want him to attend. If the invitation were withdrawn, the meeting could collapse as other African nations would almost certainly pull out.
At an EU summit next month, Mr Brown will urge fellow EU members, such as Germany and Denmark who have doubts about Mr Mugabe's attendance, to stay away from the December meeting. But British officials believe Mr Brown is likely to be left isolated and that the conference will go ahead without him.
The Prime Minister has told advisers it would "not be right" for him to be at a summit with a man who has wrecked a country now widely seen as close to collapse with inflation running at 13,900 per cent and chronic food shortages. He believes the British people would not want him to attend. But Mr Brown insists that Britain will stand by the people of Zimbabwe and uses today's article to launch a new initiative aimed at restoring democracy to the country.
He wants the EU to extend to other members of the ruling Zanu-PF party the sanctions which already apply to 131 members who cannot travel to Europe and have had their assets there frozen. The Foreign Office is drawing up a list of possible names.
He also wants the UN to get more involved in the tackling the crisis and will urge the UN Security Council to send a humanitarian mission to Zimbabwe.
The Prime Minister acknowledges that the best hope for a solution is from within Africa and pledges support for the efforts being led by South Africa and Tanzania. He promises a huge financial package from Britain and other Western and African nations to rebuild a once-prosperous country if Mr Mugabe is removed from power. Work has already begun on the proposals so that they could be implemented swiftly.
Mr Brown hopes that his absence from the EU-AU summit will send a powerful message of his deep concern about the Mugabe regime. He has taken a close interest in Africa, boosting Britain's aid as Chancellor and rallying support from other rich nations. After becoming Prime Minister, he launched a campaign to make sure the G8 countries keep their promises on aid.
Officials deny he will stay away from the Lisbon summit to avoid an embarrassing meeting with Mr Mugabe. When he was Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw was pictured shaking hands with the Zimbabwean leader in 2004 after he failed to recognise him at a reception in New York.
Some commentators have argued that attacking Mr Mugabe has the effect of bolstering his position. But Mr Brown's aides say he had to make a decision on whether to attend the summit and has no wish to become embroiled in exchanging personal insults with Mr Mugabe.
Mr Brown has been planning to issue a policy statement on Zimbabwe since he became Prime Minister in June. He has also come under pressure from church leaders to intervene. On Tuesday, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, called for "more effective intervention" by the Prime Minister. John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, has held private discussions on the issue with Mr Brown, urging him to lead an international campaign against the Harare regime.
Mr Brown has followed closely recent reports from Zimbabwe by ITV News and the BBC. A Downing Street spokesman said: "He is greatly concerned about the situation in Zimbabwe. This is a very serious situation and this is an issue that the Prime Minister has been taking a close interest in."
Pressure for action grew yesterday when the aid agency Save the Children issued a report saying that children as young as seven were fleeing Zimbabwe on foot in the hope of finding education and work in the "promised land" of South Africa. The children were often unable to obtain help from the authorities as they have no documentation, said the report. Half the children surveyed by Save the Children had paid bribes to get to South Africa. And 14 per cent said they had been assaulted during their journey – some by the guides they had paid to help them.