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Ghosts of Falklands haunt Princess's visit

Diana in Argentina: Public remain indifferent to 'ambassador' and sceptical of President Menem's motives for the trip

Buenos Aires

If she thought she was going to fly away from it all, the Princess of Wales was mistaken. When she settled into her first-class British Airways seat for an overnight flight to Buenos Aires, the in-flight TV news review concentrated on one theme only - her BBC interview.

Journalists , kept at a distance by the Princess's detectives, said they were not sure whether she watched. She appeared to take a tablet, possibly a sleeping pill, and dozed during most of the 13-hour flight, they said.

She had to. After a quick wash and brush-up at the British Embassy, she was straight into her first appointment, patting disabled youngsters' heads at a paralysis centre and chatting to victims of road, rugby and swimming accidents.

The Princess had flown into Ezeiza international airport, then on by helicopter to the capital's military airport. She was no doubt unaware that it was at that airport, around the time she was courting Prince Charles, that Argentine Air Force planes used to load anti-government suspects, "drugged like zombies", before tossing them out alive over the mouth of the river Plate.

Insisting that her visit is about charity, she may also be unaware that this nation's President, Carlos Menem, who will give a lunch for her at his official residence today, is being widely accused here of trying to garner near-royal powers for himself. He is trying to push through measures that would allow him to bypass Congress and rule by decree on key issues such as tax reform and privatisation of industries.

The Princess looked relaxed as she was greeted at the military airport by the mayor of Buenos Aires, Jorge Dominguez, and driven off in a new V12 Jaguar. The Jag, and a twin model for the British ambassador, Sir Peter Hall, carried the diplomatic plates of the embassy. But their registration discs gave the show away. They had been imported from Chile especially for her visit. The ambassador normally drives a Rover.

The cars, the first-class tickets for her and her staff, and the general costs of her stay raised the question of who exactly was footing the bill. "You'd better ask the Argentine Foreign Ministry about that," said a British diplomat here.

His remark appeared to confirm a widely-held belief here that the Argentine government proposed, organised and financed the trip, although the Princess was ostensibly invited by the Infant Paralysis Association she visited yesterday. The theory implied that Mr Menem wanted the Princess here to push his rapprochement with Britain, partly in the hope of showing that he is making progress in his pledge to regain the Falkland Islands.

President Menem, whose own love life - complete with a divorce and an illegitimate child - has often fed the gossip columns, will be host at a lunch for the Princess today. Tomorrow she flies to Patagonia to go whale-watching and take tea with the descendants of Welsh settlers.

She flies home on Sunday to face the music with Buckingham Palace for revealing the secret life of Britain's royals.

If the Princess hopes to make a career as a kind of goodwill ambassador, this was possibly the wrong place to start. "The Malvinas [Falklands] defeat is a scar that will never heal," said Daniel Antonio, who runs a corner store next to the clinic the Princess visited. "It was our Hiroshima. We'll never forget."

An opposition senator, Luis Leon, went further. "This national fawning over the visit gives prestige to a monarchy that has taken the lives of our young people to preserve a colonialism that usurped our territory," he said.

Local reporters said Argentine Air Force helicopters had been enlisted to ferry the Princess to and fro because the presidential helicopter, offered by Mr Menem, carried the name "Malvinas Argentinas" (Argentine Falklands) on the sides. There had been talk of covering the name with a sticker but it was feared the rotor blades would blow them off and embarrass the Princess, the reporters said.

Overall, though, the Princess was met with indifference. "No me va ni me viene" (I don't care one way or the other) was the most common response. A few dozen people had assembled outside the clinic yesterday, but most were curious neighbours, and they were far outnumbered by journalists.