BRUSSELS (AFP) - The European Union looked set Friday to offer to suspend all sanctions against Zimbabwe -- bar a "small core" of people including President Robert Mugabe -- in exchange for further political reforms.
As the 27-nation bloc explores ways of encouraging reform in the southern African nation, diplomatic sources said EU foreign ministers meeting Monday will prepare to resume direct aid to Zimbabwe's government after a 10-year suspension.
The ministers will also offer to lift sanctions against most of the 112 Zimbabweans still under an EU asset freeze and travel ban decided in 2002, diplomatic sources said on condition of anonymity.
This would only occur, however, once a referendum on a new constitution has been organised and would target "all but a very small core of individuals", including Mugabe, an EU diplomat said.
Around a dozen Zimbabweans would remain on the EU blacklist, the source added.
"We think now is a critical moment to encourage the process of reform and incentify the reformers," the source added. "It is time for the EU to shift its positions."
The EU in May said it was involved in a "re-engagement" process with Zimbabwe after the country's leaders agreed to draft a new constitution to be put to a referendum before elections.
A new constitution was finalised this week but no date has been fixed to put it to a referendum, though it is expected later this year.
Drafting a new rule-book was a key condition of reforms agreed in 2008 when Mugabe was forced into a power-sharing deal with his arch-rival Morgan Tsvangirai to avoid conflict after a violent presidential election.
A two-part statement, approved by ambassadors of the 27 nations and expected to be adopted as such by the ministers, says:
"A peaceful and credible constitutional referendum would justify the suspension of the majority of the European Union's restrictive measures."
One diplomat said there would be more discussion later on how many people would remain on an EU blacklist. "The scope of the small core remains to be decided," he said.
Last week the EU firmly denied it was contemplating lifting sanctions against Mugabe, who is 88 and has ruled since independence from Britain in 1980.
"The EU is reflecting on policy towards Zimbabwe," said a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
"But there is no question of lifting sanctions against Mugabe or anyone involved in continued abuses of human rights, incitement to violence, etc -- that is simply not up for discussion," said Michael Mann.
In February, the EU removed a visa ban and asset freeze on 51 people targeted by the restrictive measures and 20 of 30 companies under EU sanctions.