Jack Straw said yesterday that he had shaken hands with President Robert Mugabe because it was "dark" and he did not realise he was greeting the Zimbabwean leader.
The Foreign Secretary, who had described Mr Mugabe's last election victory as a "tragedy" for the people of Zimbabwe, met him last week at a reception in New York. It came just after President Mugabe had attacked Tony Blair and George Bush at the United Nations for "raining bombs and hellfire on innocent Iraqis, purportedly in the name of democracy".
After he was filmed meeting Mr Mugabe by BBC2's Newsnight programme, Mr Straw said: "I hadn't expected to see President Mugabe there. Because it was quite dark in that corner, I was being pushed towards shaking hands with somebody just as a matter of courtesy and then it transpired it was President Mugabe."
The Foreign Secretary added: "The fact that there is a serious disagreement between Zimbabwe and the United Kingdom does not mean that you should then be discourteous or rude."
Last night, an official of the Zimbabwean opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said: "Whatever the circumstances, it sends the wrong message to see the British Foreign Secretary shaking hands with President Mugabe." He described Mr Straw's reasoning about the darkness as "remarkable", adding: "He actually said that! Obviously he needs better lighting in the future."
Britain has been in the forefront of an international campaign against Mr Mugabe's government. However, this is the second time in a month that the British Government has found itself in an embarrassing position over Zimbabwe.
Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the MDC, recently accused the Prime Minister of playing into President Mugabe's hands.
Mr Blair declared in the House of Commons that Britain "would work closely with the MDC" to put pressure for change in the Mugabe regime".
That was followed by the ruling Zanu-PF party in Harare passing a parliamentary motion starting a formal investigation into the MDC's "treasonable" collusion with Britain. President Mugabe said there was evidence that the former colonial power was trying to overthrow an elected government.
Mr Tsvangirai said Mr Blair "fell right into" a trap set for him by the regime. He added: "I very much regret that he made that statement because it is also not the truth."
The Foreign Secretary was himself once again in the centre of controversy when he refused to bar the Zimbabwe cricket team from playing in the International Cricket Council trophy that was held in the past two weeks in Britain. That decision came after the ICC stated that it was banning Zimbabwe from test cricket for the rest of the year. The former Labour sports minister Kate Hoey pointed out that President Mugabe was closely tied to Zimbabwe's cricket hierarchy. "He himself is the patron. That is why a Zimbabwe team coming here in the country's name, in Mugabe's name, is not acceptable," she said.