Government denies spiking Diana's guns

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The Government was forced into an embarrassing retreat yesterday after reports that one of its ministers had described the Princess of Wales as a "loose cannon" for backing the Red Cross campaign for a world- wide ban on landmines .

The Ministry of Defence was plunged into a rearguard action after it became clear that the criticism of the Princess, as she posed with children maimed by landmines, threatened to rebound on the Government.

There was disarray in government ranks as a former minister, Sir Peter Viggars, compared the Princess's campaign against landmines to the French actress Brigitte Bardot's support for stray cats.

The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, stepped in to make it clear that the Government had no quarrel with the Princess of Wales. As the search at Westminster continued to find the person who had attacked her, Earl Howe, a Defence minister in the House of Lords, owned up to having lunch with two journalists.

But the earl denied all knowledge of the remarks, reported to have been made over hors-d'oeuvres at Simply Nico, an expensive London restaurant used for off-the-record meetings by politicians and journalists.

Earl Howe, 45, a member of the Curzon banking family, has hitherto avoided publicity. "He is not someone who would be indiscreet. He has not got a lot to be indiscreet about," one House of Lords insider said.

"He is very mild-mannered and at parties doesn't turn his nose up at talking to minions. He certainly would not be someone who had an axe to grind. He might be a bit ineffectual but he isn't someone who is hard enough to grind axes, even in private," the source added.

Meanwhile, the Princess of Wales, who is in Angola on a four-day visit, brushed aside the criticism and said: "I am only trying to highlight a problem that is going on all around the world - that's all."

She flew to Kuito, believed to be the most landmined town in the world, and walked its streets, which have been all but destroyed by the country's long-running civil war. All around were minefields - the Princess was warned not to step off the pot-holed tarmac roads and paths. De-mining experts from Britain's Halo Trust were nearby, painstakingly clearing a small area of land. She then flew on to Huambo, where she walked down a narrow corridor cleared through a minefield after donning an armoured vest and visor.

Mr Rifkind told the Commons: "We support a multilateral, universal ban on landmines. That is a policy which has been called for from a number of quarters and we welcome the support given to that policy as does the Red Cross."

The British Red Cross Director General, Mike Whitlam, travelling with the Princess, dismissed the controversy as "a bit of mischief". He added: "... It would be really awful if this visit went sour because of something going on in London."