Clinton mars Major celebration

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President Bill Clinton will fly to Moscow, by-passing London, to attend 9 May celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe in the Second World War, the White House said yesterday. John Major's plans to travel to three capitals in 48 hours to commemorate VE-Day were marred by the announcement.

Downing Street dismissed as "complete cock and drivel" reports that Mr Clinton had snubbed Mr Major, following their row over the invitation to Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein President, to the White House.

But one Cabinet source said: "There is no way they can dress this up. It seems the President is prepared to shake terrorists by the hand, but will not come to London to share in victory over Hitler. It's extraordinary."

Mr Major had invited Mr Clinton to a heads of state gathering, with a banquet at Buckingham Palace hosted by the Queen on 7 May. But he was told by Mr Clinton in their telephone conversation at the weekend that the President would not be able to attend.

Mr Major is planning to fly to Paris, Berlin and Moscow on 8-9 May and will be in the Russian capital for the D-Day event with Mr Clinton and President Boris Yeltsin. Downing Street said Mr Major was "relaxed" about Mr Clinton's absence. The British government had hoped the US President would attend VE-Day festivities in London on 8 May but Mike McCurry, the White House spokesman, said this was "impossible" as the President was committed to taking part in a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery that day. Vice-President Al Gore will visit London instead. Mr McCurry made a point of confirming that Mr Major would visit the United States on 3 and 4 April.

During the row between the British and American governments last week after Mr Clinton's decision to invite Mr Adams to the White House, it fell to Mr McCurry to repeat, at briefing after briefing, that "the special relationship" remained strong.Yesterday he rejected suggestions that the British government would view Mr Clinton's decision to dispatch Mr Gore in his place as a snub, saying: "We have not had any indication of that at all." On Sunday, Mr Clinton spoke to Mr Major on the telephone for 25 minutes.

According to US officials, the trip to Moscow was discussed.

If Mr Major felt at all aggrieved he could have taken solace in the fact that Mr Clinton had also turned down invitations to attend VE-Day ceremonies in Paris and Berlin. Mr McCurry, alert to the possibility that French sensibilities might be as ruffled as British, was at pains to emphasise that there was no connection between Mr Clinton's decision to overfly Paris and recent allegations of spying levelled against US diplomats by officials in France.