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Britons cynical of royal probe

London, Nov. 13 (Reuters): British royalty was accused of mounting a cover-up today as critics dismissed a new inquiry into claims of gay rape, fraud and impropriety by palace staff as a whitewash.

Royal secretary Sir Michael Peat is to head the internal investigation into alleged irregularities by Prince Charles’ retinue in the worst bout of scandal to hit the House of Windsor since the family’s marriage bust-ups of the 1990s.

“Anyone who says it’s going to be a complete whitewash doesn’t know me very well,” said Peat, a long-serving courtier who has served both the Queen and her son and heir Charles.

“It is up to me to make sure that this office is whiter than white.”

But the royals’ failure to set up an independent external probe — and to exclude Queen Elizabeth from scrutiny — has merely intensified suspicions of scandal at the top.

“Palace probe will just be a whitewash,” announced the mass-circulation Daily Star newspaper on its front page.

The fresh allegations were unleashed by the dramatic collapse this month of a theft trial involving Paul Burrell, former butler and confidant to Charles’ ex-wife Princess Diana.

Most newspapers, which have wallowed in the latest royal embarrassment, derided the inquiry announced late yesterday. “Prince Charles has ignored the demand for an independent investigation into the whole affair,” sniffed the more upmarket Financial Times.

“It is clear that the House of Windsor is still far from understanding the need for much greater openness in the Britain of the 21st century.”

Legislator Ian Davidson, who sits on a parliamentary committee which last year investigated royal finances, said Peat seemed determined to defend Charles, who turns 54 tomorrow.

The affair, which has pushed weightier matters like possible war with Iraq off Britain’s front pages, is further degrading and demystifying the royal family just when it thought it was recovering from more than a decade of other scandals. The most damaging allegation to be investigated by Peat and a barrister is that one of Charles’ male servants raped another seven years’ ago.

But the inquiry will also look at claims that another employee, Charles’ personal assistant Michael Fawcett, had been selling unwanted gifts to the prince for his own gain.

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