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Mexico Detains, Questions 6 Britons Rescued From Cave

Four are members of the military possibly traveling improperly on tourist visas.

March 28, 2004|John Rice | Associated Press Writer

MEXICO CITY — Six British cavers who were rescued after more than a week trapped in an underground cavern were detained and questioned Friday over suspected visa violations.

As immigration agents interrogated them, other government officials said they would investigate allegations raised by the media that the Britons were secretly prospecting for uranium.

The inquiries were part of a widening diplomatic dispute over the presence of members of Britain's military in Mexico, apparently without the government's knowledge.

The cavers' planned three-day underground expedition turned into eight days of entrapment as floodwaters fed by incessant rains continued to block the cave's entrance near Cuetzalan, 110 miles northeast of Mexico City.

Late Thursday, British and Mexican divers rescued four members of Britain's Combined Services, which encompasses the army, navy and air force, and two civilians. On Friday, the six were taken to an immigration office in eastern Mexico City, along with seven colleagues who had remained aboveground. They were questioned for several hours about possible violations of their visa status.

President Vicente Fox said he was not satisfied with Britain's explanation of the cavers' activities, and Mexican officials vowed to keep tighter tabs on foreigners entering under tourist visas, as the Britons had. Fox said he asked Britain for "clear information about what they were doing." Britain's response was "frankly, unsatisfactory," Fox said. "We want more clarity about what this affair is about."

British authorities Friday denied that the men had violated the terms of their tourist vistas.

"We undertook the trip in good faith as we have done for 20 years without any problems using the same visa that we have always used," a Ministry of Defense spokesman said. "However, if there is a problem, that is something we are willing to discuss with the Mexican authorities."

Allegations about uranium started after the Britons were said to be carrying gas-sensing equipment that could be used to detect the radioactive element.

Mexican Energy Department officials are in the Cuetzalan area investigating whether uranium exists there, federal prosecutor Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos said. He noted that any criminal investigation would have to wait until after immigration authorities made a decision.

Mexican law requires a special visa for scientific explorations and bans foreign military exercises on its soil. Complicating the affair was a British Ministry of Defense description of the trip by the Combined Forces cave club as an "official military adventurous training expedition." The group also added to suspicion by initially rejecting Mexican offers of help.

British defense attache Ian Blair-Tilling said British soldiers had been coming to Mexico for underground explorations for 20 years. Members of the team were part of a military caving club but not part of a formal exercise.

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