A SHOP has apologised for a "misunderstanding" of the law which led to staff refusing to serve a uniformed soldier with cigarettes.

Management at Alpha News in the Hardshaw Centre, St Helens posted notices at its store after a complaint by the soldier on Facebook spread like wildfire.

The social media message led to a group of protestors gathering in the shopping centre this morning trying to persuade shoppers not to buy anything from the store.

Police were stationed outside the shop in an attempt to defuse the row and quell any potential disorder.

The shop's Indian owner later apologised, insisting that staff had believed cigarettes could not be sold to soldiers wearing military uniform.

It is understood police are trying to speak with the soldier to get his version of events.

The notice from the shop's management read: "We were under the impression that by law we were not permitted to serve under 18s and army personnel in uniforms cigarettes.

"This has been checked with Trading Standards and this is clearly not the case.

"We sincerely apologise to everyone, for this misunderstanding and we regret any offence we may have caused."

Police, meanwhile, warned  they are investigating whether any of follow up comments made on social media about the shop constitute a criminal offence under the Malicious Communications and Public Order Acts.

In a statement London and Cambridge Properties, owners of The Hardshaw Centre in St Helens, said: “We are aware of allegations that a retailer at The Hardshaw Centre refused to serve a soldier who was in uniform.

“We have investigated these allegations and, having spoken to the shopkeeper in question, we believe this was a genuine error and not the result of any form of discrimination.

“We have been advised that the shopkeeper intends to extend a full apology to the individual involved as soon as possible.”

In a statement police said: "Police are monitoring the situation and the owner of the business is helping officers with their enquiries.

"Police are also aware of offensive and threatening comments being posted on social media network sites towards this business.

"Although police have not received a report of complaint from the shop, a full investigation into the wider comments being made is underway by the SIGMA team in St Helens.

"Police are looking into whether any of these comments constitute a criminal offence under the Malicious Communications and Public Order Acts.

"Merseyside Police will continue to use all the available technology and expertise at its disposal to identify people who commit offences on-line and take action under the current laws.

"People should stop and think on social media before making statements as the consequences could be serious.

"High visibility patrols have been stepped up in the area to reassure local businesses and shoppers. "