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CHARLES, DIANA ARE ELIGIBLE FOR DIVORCE FRIDAY

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If Prince Charles and Princess Diana decide they've had enough of a "fairy tale" marriage that turned into a sham, this Friday is the earliest they could call it a day.

On Dec. 9, 1992, a shocked Britain was suddenly told the royal couple was splitting up.After two years apart, the bitter rivals become eligible on Friday for a "friendly," mutually agreed divorce.

It would lay to rest a marriage that began when Lady Diana Spencer, a blushing 20-year-old, married Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, in a dazzling ceremony in London's St. Paul's Cathedral.

A bishop called it "the stuff fairy tales are made of," but an official royal biographer has now portrayed it as a union doomed from the outset, of an immature romantic woman and a doubting prince bullied into it by his father and by public hopes.

Despite widespread belief that divorce is inescapable - and actually desirable for a couple who fought their most private battles in public - any announcement would stun the country and lead to endless speculation about the monarchy's future.

Could Charles still become king, or should he stand aside for his son William? Could he remarry? What would become of the glamorous and popular Diana, and would she lose her children?

These questions may not have to be answered for months or longer. Charles says divorce is not on his mind, Diana has not commented, and neither party seems in a hurry to move first.

Diana could have already sued for divorce on the grounds of adultery - messier and more embarrassing - which her husband has publicly admitted.

Sympathizers say this puts her in a strong position to win a settlement safeguarding access to her children, riches of up to $23 million and a public life of her own away from a royal family she is reported to call "the leper colony."

"A long, drawn-out separation works against the future king," said Andrew Morton, a biographer of the 33-year-old princess, who is stepping up her public work after a year of semi-withdrawal.

"While there is an assumption the queen will live to the same ripe old age as the queen mother, this is not inevitable. Under the "if the queen falls under a bus tomorrow' scenario, the Princess of Wales, even though separated, would be queen.

"It would be an intolerable situation."