Eritrea holds British couple on spy claims

Diplomatic protest: Foreign Office demands immediate release of round-the-world travellers seized on yacht by armed men
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Britain yesterday demanded the release of a couple arrested on suspicion of spying in Eritrea more than two weeks ago while on a marathon round the world yacht trip.

The Foreign Office also asked for an immediate explanation for the continuing detention of Peter and Shirley Billing, who were seized by armed men on board their yacht on 19 March. They left Britain to travel 13 years ago.

Mr Billing, 64, and his wife, 61, were originally thought to have been arrested because they anchored in a restricted area off the Hanish Islands in the Red Sea, which are the subject of a territorial dispute between Eritrea and Yemen.

But yesterday Rod Hicks, the British consul in Asmara, the Eritrean capital, said that their 35ft ketch Clypeus had been anchored within Eritrean territorial waters and well away from the islands. "We have not been told why they are being held," Dr Hicks said. "They are being detained by the authorities in a hotel, where they are being well treated."

Mrs Billing said yesterday: "We have got stronger and more independent as time has gone on. If I had been questioned hard before I would probably have cried but I suppose they were just doing their job. They seemed to think we are spies, which is ridiculous.

"The whole thing is going on a bit and we are still apprehensive because we just don't know which way they are likely to go."

A Foreign Office spokesman said: "We have protested to the Eritreans and we are pressing for a full explanation and early action. We want to see Mr and Mrs Billing released and returned to their vessel."

He added that the British embassy in neighbouring Ethiopia, which oversees the United Kingdom's interests in Eritrea, had also been instructed "to register our deep concern over the Billings and demand a full explanation".

Mr Habtom Gebremichael, the Eritrean Consul-General in London, was not available for comment yesterday.

Although no formal explanation of the Billings' arrest has been forthcoming it is believed that Eritrea, which fought a long war to win independence from Ethiopia, is still nervous about security in its coastal waters. The Billings and a French couple arrested in similar circumstances were taken to an army camp and kept under armed guard in a mice-infested hut for three days. They were then flown to Asmara for questioning and it was not until Sunday that they were allowed to see Dr Hicks.

Mr Billing, an electronics engineer, and his wife sold their home in Wokingham, Berkshire, and left England in 1983 to travel round the world by yacht. They are experienced navigators who took advice from the crews of other yachts about where they could anchor off Eritrea.

Their voyage has taken them to the Caribbean, the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador, the South Pacific, South-East Asia, Oman and Yemen.