Prince Andrew under pressure over sex offender links

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Britain's Prince Andrew was facing calls to quit his role as unpaid trade ambassador on Monday amid media revelations about his links to a convicted sex offender and the ousted Tunisian president.

Ministers defended the work done by Queen Elizabeth II's second son in promoting British business overseas over the past decade, but they and the palace are under growing pressure over the contacts he has made in his role.

The weekend newspapers were full of details about his links to Jeffrey Epstein, a wealthy US businessman jailed for soliciting underage prostitutes, and Sakher el-Materi, the son-in-law of Tunisia's deposed president.

Andrew's spokesman has denied any impropriety in his links with Epstein, saying media reports included "insinuations and innuendos".

But the revelations threaten to cause embarrassment for the palace just weeks before the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton on April 29, when Andrew, as the groom's uncle, will be expected to take a prominent role.

"I think we should be dispensing with his services. I think the charge list against him is so long now that he is a bit of an embarrassment," former minister Chris Bryant, a lawmaker for the main opposition Labour party, told the BBC.

Business Secretary Vince Cable denied reports that ministers would downgrade the prince's unpaid role and said it was up to him to decide on his future.

"He is a volunteer, he has offered to perform these roles, and I think it is down to him essentially to judge the position he wants to be in," Cable told BBC radio, adding that he believed the prince had done a "very good job".

Foreign Secretary William Hague also defended Andrew in a television interview Sunday, saying: "I've seen around the world a lot of good that he has done for this country."

But briefings from Prime Minister David Cameron's government paint a different picture. One source told the Daily Telegraph: "We won't be giving a full-throated defence of him. There won't be many tears shed if he resigns."

Andrew was reportedly a frequent guest at Epstein's home in Florida and newspapers have published a photograph of him with his arm around 17-year-old Virginia Roberts, reportedly an erotic masseuse who worked for Epstein.

There is no suggestion that Andrew -- also known as the Duke of York -- himself has done anything wrong, and in a letter to The Times on Saturday, Alastair Watson, the prince's private secretary, condemned the media speculation.

"The Duke has known Mr. Epstein since being introduced to him in the early 1990s. The insinuations and innuendos that have been made in relation to the duke are without foundation," Watson wrote.

He also rejected suggestions that Andrew was a friend of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam, saying he had met him twice in 2007 at the request of the British government and had not seen him since.

Andrew also faces questions over his links to Sakher el-Materi, the son-in-law of the Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was deposed in an uprising in January.

The Guardian revealed that he gave a lunch for Materi last year with British businessmen at Buckingham Palace.

A spokesman for the prince told the paper that "whatever has happened since, at the time it was a legitimate public engagement".

This is not the first time the prince has courted controversy.

He has previously come under fire for his ties to a billionaire from Kazakhstan who bought his home for way over the asking price, and has been criticised for his expenses for the trade job.

Diplomatic cables released by the WikiLeaks website last year also showed how US officials were shocked by the "rude" prince's "astonishing display of candour" during a business trip to Kyrgyzstan.

An editorial in The Times Monday urged Andrew to quit, saying: "It is high time Prince Andrew relinquished his role, ended his visits to assorted despots and spared his mother and his country further embarrassment."

© 2011 AFP

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