Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe canceled a trip to the United Nations international Telecommunications Union conference in Geneva, Switzerland, after Swiss authorities denied visas to his wife Grace and five senior aides, all under Western sanctions.
Government sources said Mr. Mugabe barred Information and communications Technology Minister Nelson Chamisa from going to Geneva for the conference, though Chamisa said he was not forbidden to go but had other commitments.
Foreign Affairs Ministry Permanent Secretary Joey Bimha was dispatched to head a low-level Harare delegation in Geneva.
Mr. Mugabe and Chamisa received visas, but the Swiss government refused to issue them to Foreign Affairs Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi, Transport Minister Nicholas Goche, Central Intelligence Organization Director Happyton Bonyongwe, Mugabe spokesman George Charamba, and his aide, Martin Kwainona.
Charamba denounced the Swiss move in the state-controlled Herald newspaper, calling it anti-family as it appeared to be intended to separate the president and his wife.
Harare was said to have lodged a formal complaint with the UN and the ITU.
Swiss and other Western travel restrictions on Mr. Mugabe and other members of his inner circle have often been waived where a UN gathering was in question.
But ITU spokeswoman Sarah Parks said the agency cannot dictate to sovereign states.
International relations expert Clifford Mashiri says Switzerland is within its right to sanction certain Zimbabwean ministers.
But political analyst Livingstone Dzikira said the Swiss move shows the West is focused on Mr. Mugabe now that the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is out of the picture.
Meanwhile, there was some uncertainty in Harare as to Mr. Mugabe's whereabouts. The President was said to have flown Monday to Singapore for medical treatment, though he was not accompanied by his customary entourage. Charamba has said that Mr. Mugabe on another recent trip was receiving follow-up care after a cataract operation.
But persistent news reports say Mr. Mugabe has been under care for prostate cancer - a scenario supported by a US diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks quoting Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono as saying Mr. Mugabe was a cancer patient.
Harare sources said Mr. Mugabe's governing partners were not informed of his absence.
Presidential spokesman Charamba declined to comment.
ZANU-PF parliamentary whip Joram Gumbo said Mr. Mugabe’s absence would not affect government operations, commenting that he found it sad that so many among ZANU-PF’s political oppponents do not wish the president well.
Analyst Joy Mabenge of the Institute for a Democratic and Alternative Zimbabwe said continued secrecy as to Mr. Mugabe's health merely fuels speculation and is detrimental to the proper functioning of the fragile national unity government.