BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe may be allowed in to the European Union to attend high-level meetings in his new role as chairman of the African Union, despite a long-standing travel ban, the EU said on Tuesday.
The 90-year-old Mugabe, one of Africa's most divisive figures, ascended to the rotating chairmanship of the AU last Friday, casting a shadow over the continental body's relations with the West.
The 28-nation EU, which imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe in 2002 to protest reported human rights abuses and violations of democracy under Mugabe, has gradually scaled back sanctions over the last few years to encourage political reform.
But it has kept Mugabe and his wife, Grace, under an asset freeze and a ban on traveling to the EU.
EU spokeswoman Catherine Ray said the visa ban on Mugabe and his wife remained in place, but Mugabe could be granted an exemption to travel to Europe "in exceptional cases" for inter-governmental meetings that promoted the EU's goals of democracy, human rights and rule of law in Zimbabwe.
Mugabe would still need authorization from EU governments under the exemption if he were to travel to Europe as chairman of the African Union.
Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since it gained independence from Britain in 1980 and has frequently clashed with the West over his policies.
EU states were divided in their response when Mugabe won a fifth term as president in a 2013 election that was endorsed as free by African observers but denounced as fraudulent by the opposition.
The EU invited Mugabe to attend an EU-Africa summit in Brussels last April, but he stayed away because his wife was not invited. Following Mugabe's protest, South Africa's President Jacob Zuma also decided to stay at home.
(Reporting by Alastair Macdonald and Adrian Croft; Editing by Larry King)