PM backs Prince Andrew over sex offender row

The British government gave its full backing to Prince Andrew on Monday amid calls for him to quit as unpaid trade envoy over his ties to a convicted sex offender.

Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman said "we fully support" Queen Elizabeth II's second son in his role, despite growing questions over the relationships he has formed in his decade promoting British business overseas.

The weekend newspapers were full of details about Andrew's 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," Chris Bryant, a lawmaker for the main opposition Labour party, told the BBC.

An editorial in The Times also 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."

A government source told the Daily Telegraph that "there won't be many tears shed if he resigns".

But Cameron's spokesman insisted that the premier "thinks he is doing a good job" and had confidence in the prince.

"We fully support Prince Andrew is his role as trade envoy," the spokesman told reporters, adding: "We are not reviewing that role in any way."

Business Secretary Vince Cable earlier denied reports that ministers would downgrade the prince's 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.

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 reports.

"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 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 the expenses he claims for the trade ambassador's 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.

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