Four-year-old British girl held in drug jail

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A four-year-old British girl was held in prison in Venezuela for four days and faces an uncertain future after she was flown home from South America by the Foreign Office.

Nikita Welsh was placed in the notorious Los Cocos detention centre on Marguerita Island alongside her mother Nathalie, 21, who had been arrested on suspicion of smuggling cocaine.

The child spent four days in the jail before she was taken into care by Venezuelan social services and then placed aboard a London flight on which two Foreign Office officials were travelling.

Nikita is now being cared for by a family friend in Gloucester who met her as she arrived back at Heathrow airport last month. Her mother remains in a small cell with 10 other women and is facing a 10-year jail sentence.

The family friend, who asked not to be named, said that Nathalie had sent her daughter a letter from her cell, apologising that they were now apart. The friend, who is 22 and has a three year-old daughter, said: "I will just keep Nikita until Nathalie gets back and do the best I can. My own daughter has gone from being an only child to having to share everything but I'm not going to let Nikita suffer for what has happened to her mother."

Nikita is said to believe still that her mother is "on holiday". The child generally talks fondly of her time "going swimming" on Marguerita Island, although she has had nightmares and called out for her mother.

Before Nikita was placed on the aeroplane, Foreign Office staff took her to say goodbye to her mother, who told her that she "would not see her for a long time".

Prisoners Abroad, a charity which helps Britons jailed overseas, said: "Prisons in Venezuela are probably the harshest and among the poorest in the world. It is difficult enough for adults to cope in such circumstances, where there is inadequate food, poor sanitation and the constant threat of violence. To subject a young child to these sorts of conditions is appalling and must have been extremely distressing for both the child and her mother."

Last March Sarah Langton, 26, died in a Venezuelan clinic after lapsing into a diabetic coma while being held at Los Teques women's prison. Human Rights groups have claimed prison authorities failed to realise the seriousness of her condition.

Ms Langton, from Northampton, had been sentenced to five years last November for smuggling 3.5kg (8lb) of cocaine.

Ms Welsh, who grew up in care and has recently lost her father, is one of the growing number of young British drug mules being held in prisons in South America and the Caribbean after being lured into smuggling cocaine.

Prisoners Abroad said 64 British women were currently held on drugs charges in South American and Caribbean jails. The issue has alarmed Cherie Blair, the Prime Minister's wife, and former Cabinet Office minister Mo Mowlam, who have both visited British drug mules in Jamaica. The British government is sponsoring a conference on the subject in Jamaica this month.