China and Russia have stymied a U.S.-led effort to impose sanctions on Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and members of his government.

The two countries vetoed proposed sanctions during a vote by the 15-nation UN Security Council, effectively killing the resolution despite the fact that there were nine votes in favour, the minimum needed to gain approval if not for the vetoes.

The United States, Britain and France — the only other countries with veto power — had argued sanctions were necessary to punish state-sanctioned violence following Zimbabwe's elections in March and in the lead-up to its run-off election last month.

A June presidential run-off election in Zimbabwe in which Mugabe was the only candidate was widely rejected around the world, and opposition supporters have been demanding a role in government.

MDC Leader Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew from the run-off, charging the government with political repression and widespread coercion of voters.

Canada and other countries have slapped their own sanctions and travel restrictions on Mugabe’s government to show their disapproval of his claim of victory in the runoff.

The proposed UN sanctions included an international travel ban and freeze on Mugabe's personal assets, as well as those of 13 of his officials.

Such a move, however, would have taken the UN beyond its mandate in trying to punish political disputes by "artificially elevating them to the level of a threat" to international peace and security," Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said.

Chinese Ambassador Wang Guangya, whose nation is one of Zimbabwe's major trading partners, said Zimbabwe should be left to resolve its political crisis on its own.

"The development of the situation in Zimbabwe until now has not exceeded the context of domestic affairs," Wang said.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said that, by using their vetoes, "China and Russia have stood with Mugabe against the people of Zimbabwe."

Opposition returns from talks in S. Africa

Meanwhile, a senior leader of Zimbabwe’s opposition party has returned to his country from South Africa where he met members of Robert Mugabe’s government, a spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said Friday.

Nqobizitha Mlilo added more talks were expected, but he did not know when.

The MDC's chief negotiator, Tendai Biti, met Mugabe’s officials Thursday with South African President Thabo Mbeki mediating, Mlilo said.

The goal is setting up a coalition of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party and the MDC, which leaders of other African countries hope will end the political chaos that has plagued Zimbabwe since the first round of the elections in March.

Thursday’s talks were only a preliminary round, Mlilo stressed.

Biti was in South Africa not to open negotiations, but to lay down conditions for talks, he said.

"The conditions have been discussed. The issues are in discussion," the spokesman said.

Differences over coalition leader

Both sides have said they are willing to share power, if only during a transition to new elections, but they differ on who should lead a coalition government.

Mugabe's party wants him to remain president, something the opposition and Mugabe's critics in the West have rejected.

Tsvangirai bases his claim to leadership on his win in presidential voting in March. But government vote counters insist he did not achieve a clear victory, making June’s run-off vote necessary.

Chief among the conditions the opposition has set for negotiations to begin is an end to political violence blamed on Mugabe's supporters, who include police and government officials.

The opposition said Friday that 113 of its activists had been killed since the March voting.

Zimbabwe’s once vibrant economy has been in freefall for years, with 80 per cent unemployment and inflation so high that it’s almost impossible to measure.

Food is scarce and even essential items can cost billions of Zimbabwe dollars, requiring people to carry money in wheelbarrows just to buy bread or flour. 

Millions of Zimbabweans have fled to neighbouring countries.

Mugabe has led the country since 1980, when he came to power after a long liberation struggle against white minority rule and British colonialism.

He has become increasingly authoritarian in recent years, clamping down on political dissenters, human rights groups and the media.

With files from the Associated Press