By William James
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain said on Friday it would strongly support Zimbabwe's re-entry to the Commonwealth and praised President Emmerson Mnangagwa for impressive progress since Robert Mugabe was toppled in a military coup.
But it said Mnangagwa, who became president following a military take-over, would still have to deliver on free and fair elections in July to win over Zimbabwe's critics at home and abroad.
Zimbabwe left the Commonwealth network of 53 mostly former territories of the British Empire in 2003 after Mugabe, who had ruled Zimbabwe from its independence in 1980, came under criticism over disputed elections and land seizures from white farmers.
"The UK would strongly support Zimbabwe's re-entry and a new Zimbabwe that is committed to political and economic reform that works for all its people," the Foreign Office said in a statement.
As Harare looks to rebuild its international ties, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson met his Zimbabwean counterpart Sibusiso Moyo and ministers from other nations over breakfast on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London.
Moyo - the general who went on state television in khaki fatigues last November to announce the military takeover - also met ministers from neighbouring African states and Australia at the breakfast.
Mugabe cast himself as a liberation hero but opponents said he drove Zimbabwe's economy into the ground and made the country an international pariah. He was forced to step down in November during a coup and was replaced by Mnangagwa.
Johnson praised Mnangagwa's record in office in the past 150 days but said a bellwether for the direction of a new Zimbabwe would be the election in July.
"The Zimbabwe government must deliver the free and fair elections the people of Zimbabwe deserve and which it has promised," he said.
The election will pit Mnangagwa against a clutch of opponents including 40-year-old Nelson Chamisa from the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
David Coltart, a former education minister and member of parliament from the Movement for Democratic Change, said he was shocked by the speed with which Mnangagwa has been welcomed back to the fold after an unconstitutional seizure of power.
"I am utterly appalled by the @Commonwealth18 and the British Government feting the #Zimbabwe regime," Coltart said on Twitter.
The West imposed sanctions on Mugabe and members of his inner circle, accusing them of rigging a series of votes - charges they denied.
Now Zimbabwe has said it will invite Western powers to monitor its national elections for the first time in more than 15 years.
"President Mnangagwa has been in power for 150 days and while Zimbabwe has made impressive progress, there is still much to do," Johnson said. "That's why Britain, the Commonwealth and the wider international community will do everything it can in supporting Zimbabwe on its path of reform."
"The UK stands ready in friendship to support a Zimbabwe that fully embraces the rule of law, human rights and economic reform," he said.
(Additional reporting by Ed Cropley in Johannesburg; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Richard Balmforth)