Zimbabwe faces European Union sanctions targeted on its leaders from this weekend if it obstructs election observers monitoring its presidential elections or stops the media reporting freely.
A toughly worded statement from European foreign ministers yesterday gave President Robert Mugabe until Sunday to allow European election observers into the country, and made clear the price to be paid if he fails to comply.
Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said Mr Mugabe and about 20 senior colleagues face a visa ban and a freeze of their overseas financial assets. Work is already underway to trace the funds of Mr Mugabe and the Zanu-PF leadership.
A ban on the export of equipment which might be used for internal repression would also swing into place.
Mr Straw, who lobbied hard for a tough line at yesterday's meeting in Brussels, said: "Mr Mugabe now has a choice: either he calls off the thugs, allows the media to operate freely and lets the population of Zimbabwe make a democratic choice, or he and his key ministers will pay the price."
France, which had been sceptical about sanctions, backed the position and Mr Straw said that the decision was a "clear, unambiguous and unanimous one".
The backing of all 15 EU foreign ministers was given after a day of diplomacy, including 11th-hour talks between Zimbabwean and EU officials in Harare yesterday.
The smart sanctions can come into play under a number of circumstances, the first of which would be if the Zimbabwe government prevents the deployment of an EU observation mission starting by Sunday, just after nominations of candidates for the elections to be held on 9-10 March.
The EU then reserves the right to implement sanctions if the observers are prevented from operating properly, if the international media is stopped from covering the elections or there is a "serious deterioration in the situation on the ground, in terms of a worsening of the human rights situation or attacks on the opposition".
Finally the EU could introduce the measures if the elections are judged not to have been free and fair.
The EU aims to dispatch an advance party of six election monitors to Zimbabwe to arrive on Sunday, with a further 30 to be on the ground by 9 February, and another 100 in the week before polling.
Glenys Kinnock, the Labour MEP, said she thought sanctions were almost inevitable. She said: "Even on Sunday when the visas for the observers should be on the table and the time should be right to go out to Zimbabwe, we are likely to see the activation of sanctions. This is a very clear signal to Mugabe and to the democratic forces in Zimbabwe that the EU has a strong case on democracy and human rights."
The mood in the EU has hardened as Zimbabwe has slipped into a political and economic crisis and Mr Mugabe struggles to maintain his grip on power. Harare has proved adept at rallying support among African allies and giving conflicting signals to the EU.
Last week it said that it was willing to admit EU observers, but not Britons, and allow access to the international media, except the BBC.
During the last presidential elections the EU observer mission did not include Britain and the British Government has made it clear that it will not object to its omission from the team. Likewise the exclusion of the BBC is unlikely, of itself, to trigger sanctions.
Mr Straw yesterday accused the Zimbabweans of deciding to "string things out" but he, like other European ministers, has faced a dilemma because he wants international observers to be admitted. Without them opposition voters will be deterred from turning out and vote-rigging would be easier.
Diplomatic efforts since Wednesday have focused on pinning down the Zimbabwe government. Without sufficient guarantees ministers opted, instead, for an ultimatum.Reuse content