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BT threat as fall-out spreads over Andrew's Epstein links

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London (AFP)

British telecoms giant BT on Wednesday threatened to end its backing for an awards scheme unless Prince Andrew was dropped as patron, in the latest fall-out from the royal's interview about paedophile Jeffrey Epstein.

BT has been working with Inspiring Digital Enterprise Award (iDEA) since its launch in 2017 to develop digital enterprise and employability skills.

Queen Elizabeth II's second son is patron but has come under increasing pressure since he defended his friendship with Epstein in a BBC television interview broadcast last weekend.

Since the interview aired, the 59-year-old prince has been accused of lacking empathy for Epstein's victims, and there have also been questions about his lavish taxpayer-funded lifestyle.

Some British media outlets have suggested that what is developing into the most high-profile royal scandal in years could even make it a second "Annus Horribilis" for the ageing monarch.

The queen used the term in a 1992 speech to refer to a year in which her Windsor Castle residence caught fire, both Andrew and her eldest son and heir Charles separated from their respective wives, and her only daughter, Anne, got divorced.

Last month, her grandson Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, announced plans to sue media outlets for alleged phone hacking and breach of privacy.

A BT spokesman said it had only dealt with iDEA's executive directors rather than the prince, who has also been accused of using racist language in a separate incident.

But he added: "In the light of recent developments we are reviewing our relationship with the organisation and hope that we might be able to work further with them, in the event of a change in their patronage."

- Pitch@Palace ditched -

The warning came after three Australian universities -- Bond, Murdoch and RMIT -- severed ties with Prince Andrew's Pitch@Palace charity to promote entrepreneurship.

Murdoch said it had "advised Buckingham Palace it would not continue its participation", while Queensland's Bond said it had brought forward a review set for next year.

"In light of recent events, the university does not intend to seek any further involvement," a Bond University spokesperson told AFP.

RMIT University said its "involvement with Pitch@Palace concluded in October 2019" and would not be renewed.

"We remain steadfast in our commitment to ensuring RMIT is a safe and inclusive place to work and study," the university said.

Several UK-based businesses, including Standard Chartered and KPMG, have already announced they will not renew their support for the Pitch@Palace initiative.

London Metropolitan University was among others to say it would review the position of Andrew as its patron at its board of governors meeting next week.

Students at Huddersfield University in northern England also said they want the prince to step down as patron. The allegations made him "an utterly unsuitable representative", they said.

- Palace tight-lipped -

Epstein, 66, was found dead in New York's Metropolitan Correctional Center on August 10 as he awaited trial on allegations that he trafficked girls as young as 14 for sex.

In the television interview, Andrew denied having sex with a 17-year-old girl allegedly procured by the disgraced millionaire financier.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn both expressed sympathy for Epstein's victims during a televised general election debate on Tuesday night.

Asked further if the monarchy was "fit for purpose", Johnson said only that it was "beyond reproach". Veteran socialist Corbyn said it "needs a bit of improvement".

Buckingham Palace has not commented directly on Andrew's interview.

But a spokesman said the prince would be continuing his work supporting entrepreneurship, science, technology, young people and skills.

On the racism claims, one of which was made by a former British interior minister Jacqui Smith, the spokesman said Andrew had worked in the Middle East for years and had many friends from the region.

"He does not tolerate racism in any form," he added.

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