The six were expected to go to Zambia after the Congolese Interior Minister, Gaetan Kakudji, demanded that they leave on the first scheduled flight out of the capital Kinshasa because they "had infiltrated a military base".
In the increasingly acrimonious row, the Foreign Office said it was "considering its position" on whether any Congolese diplomats face expulsion in retaliation. London has denied the men were engaged in espionage. It insists their role was purely to organise contingency plans for an evacuation of British nationals in Congo which is rapidly sinking into an escalating civil war.
The expulsion of the Britons and the American also means a major disruption in contingency plans for the evacuation of the 150 or so British nationals in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The British ambassador, Douglas Scrafton, is expected to hold consultations with other foreign embassies in Kinshasa.
Mr Kadulji claimed that the men "violated the Vienna Convention by introducing themselves illegally into the grounds of the Ndolo military base". The Congolese have accused one of the Foreign Office men, Gregor Lusty, of being the "guide" of the enterprise. But as an accredited diplomat he was released; the others were kept under house arrest in Kinshasa.
The Foreign Office minister Tony Lloyd reiterated yesterday: "These people are not spies. Their purpose was wholly innocent." He has already telephoned President Kabila to complain about the "totally unjustifiable action".
Mr Lusty was Third Secretary at the British embassy in Kinshasa. The American was on secondment from the US State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Also arrested were two Ministry of Defence officials, a consular official and a bodyguard to Mr Scrafton. It has been claimed that the MoD officials were part of the Rapid Reaction Force, who would be responsible for evacuation but who could also be used for intelligence gathering.
As President Kabila's regime faces increasing pressure from rebel forces, there is increasing paranoia about alleged Western conspiracies, with accusations of foreign mercenaries helping the rebels. Anti-Western feelings are growing. Last week's massacre of eight Western tourists in Uganda was carried out by a Hutu militia loosely allied to President Kabila.Reuse content