China and Russia have vetoed United Nations sanctions on Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe over his disputed re-election, prompting an angry reaction from the United States which cast doubt on Moscow's reliability as a G8 partner.
The Chinese and Russian envoys joined colleagues from South Africa, Libya and Vietnam in opposing a US draft resolution in the Security Council, which would have imposed an assets freeze and a travel ban on Mr Mugabe and 13 other officials, as well as an arms embargo.
It would also have called for a UN special envoy for Zimbabwe to be appointed.
It was the first double veto by Russia and China since January 2007 when they vetoed a draft resolution in the 15-member council that would have urged Myanmar to ease repression and release political prisoners.
Voting in favour in the vote on Friday were the US, Britain, France, Burkina Faso, Belgium, Costa Rica, Italy, Panama and Croatia. Indonesia abstained.
"China and Russia have stood with Mugabe against the people of Zimbabwe," US ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad fumed.
But Zimbabwe's UN envoy Boniface Chidyausiku told the BBC that Mr Mugabe was "happy to know that the United Nations is still a body where there's equal sovereignty of every member of the United Nations and there are checks and balances within the system that protects the weak from the powerful."
Sponsors of the draft said the sanctions were needed to pressure Mr Mugabe into stopping the violence against his political foes and agreeing to a genuine power sharing deal with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
Opponents countered that passage of the text would undermine ongoing South African-mediated talks between Zimbabwe's ruling party and its opposition and would have run counter to the wishes of African Union leaders at their summit in Egypt held earlier in July.
Britain's UN Ambassador John Sawers, whose country is Zimbabwe's former colonial ruler, said the 15-member council "missed the opportunity to impose a legal obligation on Mr Mugabe's government to end the violence and intimidation which have scarred Zimbabwe."
Mr Khalilzad singled out Russia for special criticism: "The U-turn in the Russian position is particularly surprising and disturbing," he said, saying it raised questions about Moscow's "reliability as a G8 partner."
He noted that only a few days ago Russian President Dmitry Medvedev backed a Group of Eight leaders statement at a summit in Japan that promised new actions, including targeted "financial measures" against Mr Mugabe.
Mr Khalilzad also had some harsh words for South African President Thabo Mbeki, saying he was "out of touch".
"President Mbeki actions appear to be protecting Mr Mugabe, and to be working hand in glove with him at times while he, Mugabe, uses violent means to fragment and weaken the opposition," he said.
"I think he (Mbeki) is out of touch with the trends inside his own country and that is a source of disappointment given the history of South Africa (a reference to the struggle against apartheid)."
Chinese ambassador Wang Guangya said adopting the sanctions would have been "counterproductive" and would have undermined the South African-mediated talks between the rival Zimbabwean parties.
Zanu-PF, MDC continue talks
The vote came as Zimbabwe's Zanu-PF ruling party and opposition Movement for Democratic Change held a second day of talks in South Africa.
The talks, aimed at laying the groundwork for fully fledged negotiations to resolve Zimbabwe's political crisis, were the first since Mr Mugabe won a new term as president in a poll on 27 June, which has been widely denounced as a sham.
The US draft would have demanded that the Harare government "begin without delay a substantive dialogue between the parties with the aim of arriving at a peaceful solution that reflects the will of the Zimbabwean people as expressed by the March 29 (first-round presidential) elections."
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai won that first round but fell short of a majority. He pulled out of the run-off citing a campaign of violence and intimidation.
In Zimbabwe, the MDC on Friday accused government security forces of murdering a polling agent. A total of 113 MDC activists have been killed in election-related violence, the party said in a statement.