`We thought we'd die' say yachting couple

Diplomatic protest: Foreign Office demands immediate release of round-the-world travellers seized on ketch by armed men
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A British couple in their sixties detained in Eritrea on suspicion of spying told last night of how they feared for their lives as they were held at gunpoint in a mice-infested desert hut.

Peter and Shirley Billing, from Wokingham, Berkshire, who have been sailing round the world for 13 years, have been held for 17 days since being seized on their 35-foot ketch by Eritrean soldiers.

Mrs Billing, 61, said: "We were held at gunpoint in a squalid desert hut which we had to share with camels. There was sand blowing around everywhere. We were in fear of our lives for the first three days and we just had no idea what was going on. We were not allowed to speak to anyone."

Britain yesterday demanded the release of the couple and the Foreign Office asked for an immediate explanation about why the couple had been held since 19 March.

Mr Billing, 64, and his wife, 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, said their yacht, 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."

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."

After being held in the desert camp with a French couple arrested in similar circumstances, the Billings were then flown to Asmara, the Eritrean capital.

The couple were then questioned for five hours by a high-ranking Eritrean naval official who told them he knew everything about them and warned: "Do not underestimate us."

"It was like being in a B-movie," Mrs Billing said.

She said that their years at sea had helped them cope with most difficult situations they would be expected to face. "We have got stronger and more independent as time has gone on," she said.

However, she added: "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."

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.

Mr Billing, an electronics engineer, and his wife left England in 1983 and their voyage has taken them to the Carib bean, the Galapagos Islands, the South Pacific and South-east Asia and the Middle East.