'Visa error' may put British cavers in jail

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The six British cavers trapped in a flooded cave in Mexico missed their intended flight home yesterday after authorities kept them detained in a holding centre over alleged visa irregularities.

The six British cavers trapped in a flooded cave in Mexico missed their intended flight home yesterday after authorities kept them detained in a holding centre over alleged visa irregularities.

All 13 members of the trip, organised by the Combined Services Caving Association (CSCA), were being interviewed by officials from the Mexican Attorney General's office yesterday. Under Mexican law they can be held for questioning for a maximum of 48 hours - a period which ends tomorrow at 1pm.

Immigration officials interviewed them on Friday and believed there might have been a technical infringement on their visas. If found guilty they could be deported, fined up to £180 or even jailed for up to 18 months.

Although they had visas for exploring the caves, they were also mapping them, a common practice for potholers. Mapping comes under "scientific" activity and needs another form of visa, claim Mexican immigration authorities. But a Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesperson said yesterday: "As far as we are aware, the correct visas were obtained."

The MoD insisted yesterday that the cavers were on a training exercise and were not looking for uranium, as some media reports in Mexico had suggested. Mexico was one of six countries the UK was accused of spying on for information in the run-up to the war with Iraq.

"Any suggestions they were mining or exploring for uranium is incorrect," the MoD spokesperson said. "The cavers are continuing to assist the Mexican authorities with their investigation."

In a statement placed on their website yesterday, the CSCA admitted the men would have been checking for radon gas. "This is a naturally occurring gas found in rock and is a hazard to health if found in large quantities," the statement said.

"Many caving expeditions now check for radon gas." The association claimed that the purpose of the trip was to explore connections to the cave as they believed it may be one of the longest cave systems in the world.

Bill Rammell, a Foreign Office minister, met the Mexican ambassador in London on Friday. "The talks were friendly and constructive and we hope this can be resolved as quickly as possible," a Foreign Office spokesman said.

He added: "Consular staff have been with the cavers since they came out. I don't know if they have lawyers. We're just waiting for this period of interviewing to end. The Mexican authorities are doing things in the appropriate manner."

Mexico's federal organised crime prosecutor, Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, said: "We have no evidence, at this moment, of any illegal activity. We can't react in a paranoid or aggressive manner."

The cavers were Sgt John Roe of the RAF, Navy Warrant Officer Charles Milton, retired Army Major Jonathan Sims, Sgt Chris Mitchell and Capt Toby Hamnett. The sole civilian was Simon Cornhill.

They were rescued by British and Mexican divers from the caverns at Cuetzalan, 110 miles north-west of Mexico City, after being trapped for six days.

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