| Prince Charles (left) and President Robert Mugabe at the Vatican for Pope John Paul's funeral. (AFP)
Harare, April 9 (Reuters): Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has told Prince Charles he was welcome to visit the southern African nation, which has strained relations with its former colonial power, state media reported today.
Prince Charles, attending the Pope's funeral, shook hands yesterday with Mugabe ' a leader so shunned by the EU that it has banned him from the region. 'Comrade Mugabe told him he was welcome to return to Zimbabwe,' the official Herald newspaper said.
The handshake triggered embarrassment in Britain, prompting the royal household to issue a statement saying the prince was caught by surprise and was not in a position to avoid shaking Mugabe's hand.
The Herald said Mugabe had a chat with the heir to the British throne recalling his visit in 1980, when he represented Queen Elizabeth at Zimbabwe's independence celebrations.
The newspaper also said British Prime Minister Tony Blair left his designated seat next to Mugabe at the funeral.
The Herald quoted unnamed sources who said Blair, his wife Cherie and British Opposition leader Michael Howard all left their seats when they saw Mugabe coming to take a seat next to Blair.
'Blair is said to have fled his seat, saying saying he could not sit next to President Mugabe,' the paper reported in its main front page story.
Mugabe and Blair have had frosty relations for years, with the African leader accusing Blair of backing the Opposition party in Zimbabwe. Mugabe has described the country's main Opposition party as the British Prime Minister's 'puppet'.
Blair's office had no comment on the report.
The EU imposed travel sanctions on Zimbabwean government officials after accusations of vote rigging in Zimbabwe's parliamentary polls in 2000 and in Mugabe's re-election two years later. Mugabe, a Roman Catholic, defied the ban to attend the funeral at the Vatican, which is not part of the EU.
The handshake with Mugabe was the latest mishap to befall Prince Charles on the eve of his wedding.