Two held in Saudi over death of nurse

Britain was negotiating with the Saudi Arabian authorities last night for access to two British nurses being held over the killing of an Australian nurse at a military hospital in Dhahran.

The two British women, both in their thirties, were being held in a police station and had been denied access to British embassy staff. If they are charged and found guilty of the murder, they could face the death penalty under Islamic law. The British Consul, Tim Lamb, had been attempting to make contact with them since they were detained last Friday but had not been able to establish if they had been charged.

The two women were arrested following the killing of 55-year-old Yvonne Gilford at the King Fahd Military Medical Complex where all three were based. Ms Gilford, a senior theatre nurse from South Australia, was found dead in her room on 11 December. She had been stabbed four times, hit with a hammer and smothered.

According to sources at the hospital, police in Dhahran imposed a ban on all foreigners leaving the medical complex after her death. Around 40 British employees also had their passports confiscated. The Foreign Office in London would not disclose the identities of the detained women.

Mr Lamb had also been trying to put pressure on Saudi officials to say whether the women had been charged - or to release them if they had not. "We are seeking urgent clarification on whether any charges are being brought," a spokesman said yesterday. "A member of staff is trying to seek immediate access."

The spokesman said that Mr Lamb was not allowed to enter the hospital yesterday after flying to Dhahran from Riyadh but was believed to have spoken to other British staff from the hospital.

Ms Gilford was half way through a 12-month contract when she was killed four days before her 56th birthday. She had been living in Johannesburg, South Africa, before arriving in Saudi Arabia and was described by colleagues as a "Florence Nightingale" who devoted her life to nursing.

The resistance of authorities in Saudi Arabia to outside influence in cases involving foreign nationals was highlighted in 1979 by the death of Helen Smith who fell from a sixth-floor balcony during an illegal drinks party in Jeddah. Despite claims by many people, including her father, Ron, that she was murdered, an inquest into her death returned an open verdict.