French newspaper says 'non' to Diana's denial

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The Independent Online
Diana, Princess of Wales, has once again landed herself in the middle of a political row after her comments, made to a French newspaper, that the Tories were "hopeless" on the issue of landmines.

Following the wave of criticism over her remarks yesterday, she issued a straight denial that she had attacked the previous government's policies.

In the interview with Annick Cojean of Le Monde, Diana reportedly said that Labour had been "straight" on the issue and its imposition of a ban on the use of mines by British troops and dismissed the Conservatives' approach as "really hopeless".

A statement issued hastily from Kensington Palace yesterday said: "The Princess made no such criticism. Her stance on the question of landmines has been apolitical throughout. Her concerns are exclusively humanitarian."

Le Monde said yesterday that it stood by its interview and insisted it had quoted her accurately. Edwy Plene, the executive editor said: "The journalist Annick Cojean has been a staff reporter here for 15 years. She is very serious, very professional and she speaks fluent English.

"It is not a concoction. Annick Cojean met Princess Diana. It was a long interview, not gossip, a serious interview. Princess Diana has denied only one sentence of the interview. I think it is a diplomatic denial."

Former Conservative ministers were quick to attack the princess, accusing her of attracting publicity as though she were a "Hollywood movie star".

Sir James Hill, former MP for Southampton Test and a one-time chairman of the Tory backbench committee on constitutional affairs, said she must keep out of politics.

"The only way she can be disciplined at all is through the Royal Family," he said. "I think she ought to be reprimanded and told that, as a royal, she is not to enter the political arena."

But Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said he had "immense admiration" for Diana and the "very powerful part" she was playing in moves to make the world safe from landmines.

"I am very pleased she recognises the Labour government shares her concern and has already made very substantial progress towards signalling Britain's complete withdrawal from the production and trade in landmines. I have immense admiration for the courage she has shown in taking such a lead on this issue," he said.

However, despite the princess's belief that Labour's position has always been "absolutely clear", The Independent has discovered that thousands of soldiers are still receiving training in how to plant them.

Opposition politicians and anti-mines groups have reacted angrily to the revelation that a loophole in the moratorium announced in May has allowed British forces to continue exactly as they did before it.

The Royal Engineers, who make up 9 per cent of the army, with almost 10,000 troops, continue to be trained in the use, detection and countering of landmines. RAF fighter crews are still taught how to drop HB 876 bombs - also included in the ban - which are designed to sit in battlefield rubble and to explode when clearance teams move in.

Three people are killed or injured by landmines every hour in countries including Angola, Bosnia, Cambodia and Afghanistan. The weapons can remain in the ground for years before exploding when they are disturbed, often blowing off the limbs of farmers and villagers who return to their land.

In its manifesto, Labour promised an immediate moratorium on the use of mines, but when it made a formal announcement three weeks after the election it banned only "operational use," thus allowing training and testing to continue. A further rider added that they could still be used if ministers believed they were necessary for the security of British forces.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Defence confirmed that testing and training were continuing as before, though the majority of training was in counter-mine measures. The Royal Engineers were taught anti-mine warfare while other soldiers going to areas such as Bosnia were given specific training.

"Troops need to maintain viability in case the situation should arise where it was necessary for the security of our troops. Ministers would obviously think very carefully before making such decisions," she said.

The ban will take full effect in 2005 if an international moratorium does not come in earlier. Britain has spent pounds 30m since 1991 on mine clearance. There are no figures on how many mines Britain still holds, though it is believed there are tens of thousands. Half have now been destroyed with a view to phasing them out.

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, said the public had been led to believe there was a complete ban. "Certainly it was not made clear to the House of Commons that this was the case. A little more frankness would have been welcome."

Letters, page 13