Political Diana stirs up a row

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The Independent Online
The Foreign Secretary stepped in to defend Princess Diana yesterday after she came under fire for telling a magazine that the Tories were "hopeless" on the issue of landmines.

But despite the Princess's apparent belief that Labour has been "straight" on the issue, and its imposition of a ban on the use of mines by British troops, The Independent has discovered that thousands of soldiers are still receiving training in how to plant them.

The Princess had been quoted in the French magazine Le Monde as saying: "Labour's position has always been absolutely clear. It's going to do terrific work. Its predecessor was absolutely hopeless."

Yesterday she was forced to issue a statement claiming that she had never made the criticism and had always remained apolitical. However, Robin Cook had already moved to capitalise on the reported comments.

"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.

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.

The Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, Menzies Campbell, 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