Fury as Prince Charles shakes hands with Mugabe

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The Independent Online

Prince Charles was embroiled in another public relations disaster last night - hours before his wedding - because he shook hands with the Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, at Pope John Paul II's funeral. Aides to the Prince said the heir to the throne had been "caught by surprise" when Mr Mugabe offered his hand during the ceremony in Rome, attended by 200 world leaders and watched by a global television audience of 900 million.

Prince Charles was embroiled in another public relations disaster last night - hours before his wedding - because he shook hands with the Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, at Pope John Paul II's funeral. Aides to the Prince said the heir to the throne had been "caught by surprise" when Mr Mugabe offered his hand during the ceremony in Rome, attended by 200 world leaders and watched by a global television audience of 900 million.

The Zimbabwean leader, a practising Catholic who side-stepped a European Union travel ban to join dignitaries at the Vatican, appeared to take advantage of the congregation being asked to show the "sign of peace" by leaning over to offer the Prince his hand.

Opponents of Mr Mugabe, whose ruling Zanu-PF party won the election last week and has been condemned for vote-rigging and widespread intimidation, said the gesture left "blood on the hands" of the Prince by appearing to accept the President as an equal. In the approach to the elections, Mr Mugabe was accused of deliberately starving opponents by withholding food handouts to supporters of the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Paul Themba Nyati, a spokesman for the MDC, said: "If Prince Charles thinks nothing of shaking hands with Mugabe, it is up to the Prince to explain that kind of behaviour.

"But in so doing, Prince Charles has accepted a hand that is stained with the blood of Zimbabweans and he now has that blood on his own hands. Mugabe craves respectability and despite what he says about British imperialism, he craves it most from the British Royal Family. Now he has it and can talk about how he has shaken hands with Prince Charles rather than his four million starving people."

The incident, on the eve of today's wedding between the Prince and Camilla Parker Bowles at Windsor's Guildhall comes after a series of embarrassing hiccups in his progress to the register office.

After overcoming questions about the legality of the marriage, a "snub" from the Queen and unguarded comments about the media from the Prince during a ski-trip photocall, courtiers had been hoping to avoid any further controversy before the nuptials, which were postponed by 24 hours to allow the Prince to travel to Rome.

Clarence House went out of its way last night to underline the Prince's "abhorrence" of Mr Mugabe's regime. The handshake took place towards the end of the funeral, apparently after the congregation had been asked to stand and show the "sign of peace" by shaking hands with fellow mourners.

The Zimbabwean leader reached across his finance minister, Herbert Murerwa, a former high commissioner to London, who was seated to the left of the Prince. Royal aides said Mr Mugabe then placed his right hand directly in front of the Prince, obliging him to offer his own.

A spokesman said: "The Prince of Wales was caught by surprise and was not in a position to avoid shaking Mr Mugabe's hand. The Prince finds the current Zimbabwean regime abhorrent."

Officials pointed out that the Prince is a supporter of the Zimbabwean Defence and Aid Fund, which works with victims of the regime, and had recently met the Archbishop of Bulawayo, the Most Rev Pius Ncube, a leading opposition member who described Mugabe as "shameless" for flouting the EU travel ban.

A royal source said: "There was nothing the Prince could do. If somebody thrusts their hand into yours then you have no choice. Not shaking would have created more of a scene."

The Foreign Office said the seating arrangements which placed the Prince within a single seat of Mr Mugabe, an avowed "victim" of what he describes as a British-led plot to destabilise Zimbabwe, had been made by the Vatican.

The incident has parallels with last September when Jack Straw shook hands with Mr Mugabe at a UN summit. The Foreign Secretary, who was accused by the Tories of a "scandalous betrayal", said it had been too dark to recognise Mr Mugabe. Television footage showed the room was well lit.

Neither of the two main political parties was prepared to comment on the latest incident last night. But Richard Corbett, a Labour MEP, said the Prince had missed an opportunity to send a clear message about his feelings on Zimbabwe. "This was a golden opportunity to deliberately and very visibly refuse to shake hands with this man," he said. "To fail to do so was, frankly, stupid."

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