BEIJING China said on Monday its embassy in Zimbabwe had thrown a birthday party for President Robert Mugabe, a rare sign of foreign support for a leader reviled by many Zimbabweans and criticized by the United States and Europe.
Mugabe celebrated his 86th birthday on Sunday and made time to attend a party held in his honor at the Chinese embassy in Harare, China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Hailed as a savior by fanatical supporters and praised throughout Africa for standing up to what many see as bullying by the West, Mugabe is hated in equal measure by opponents who accuse him of being a dictator.
Mugabe "thanked the Chinese embassy for its painstaking preparations for the birthday celebration and ... hoped to further expand friendly cooperative relations in every field between the two nations", the foreign ministry said.
The ministry's website (www.mfa.gov.cn) showed pictures of Mugabe cutting a birthday cake in front of a large sign wishing him "Happy 86th birthday" and addressing almost 100 guests.
It quoted Zimbabwean Foreign Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi as saying it was the first time Mugabe had visited a foreign embassy in the country since independence in 1980.
"This proves the special friendly relations between the two countries," the statement paraphrased the minister as saying.
Mumbengegwi is scheduled to visit China from February 24 to March 2, but Beijing has given no other details of his trip.
Mugabe denies charges of human rights abuses and insists the West has withheld aid mainly in protest over his controversial seizure of white-owned commercial farms for resettlement among blacks.
Mugabe has tried to boost economic ties with Asian countries such as China and Malaysia.
Beijing and Chinese companies have pledged tens of billions of dollars to Africa in loans and investments, mostly to secure raw materials for the world's fastest-growing major economy.
Rights groups have repeatedly criticized China for propping up dictatorial and corrupt African nations. China counters it offers no-strings aid and that its pledge not to interfere in any country's internal affairs is welcomed by African nations.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Paul Tait)