Greek ministry raises hopes for plane spotters

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The Independent Online

The Greek Foreign Ministry sent its two most senior officials to visit one of the 12 British plane spotters being held on charges of espionage on Friday in a gesture that appears to indicate some may be freed.

Earlier Tony Blair had "raised concerns" about the case in a telephone conversation with Costas Simitis, the Greek Prime Minister, Downing Street said.

Helen Koutsibou, the secretary general of the Greek Foreign Ministry, led the delegation to see Lesley Coppin, the only woman in the group of plane spotters. "We're here to express the personal interest in the case of the Greek Foreign Minister," she said. "We are confident that justice will be done in this case.''

Mrs Coppin is being held in one of Greece's toughest women's prisons, at Korydallos, in Athens, where she is sharing a cell with up to 15 other inmates. There is concern that the 51-year-old grandmother is finding conditions inside the prison increasingly hard to endure. She has also been visited by her MEP, Geoffrey Van Orden, who has pressed the Greek government for the group's early release.

He said: "When I saw her she was very distressed. She hadn't been able to contact her husband. This is completely unacceptable. This group should have been out within hours, not weeks.''

The plane-spotting holiday was organised by Mrs Coppin's husband, Paul, who works for a company called Touchdown Tours, based in Suffolk. The group was arrested at an airshow for Greece's national air day on 8 November in the southern town of Kalamata and accused of taking photographs inside a restricted military area.

Greece's national intelligence service had been expected to clear them after film and notebooks were seized. But instead its report turned up new evidence that the Britons had been to a second military airfield and the 12 are due to face additional spying charges when they next appear in court on Tuesday.

According to some reports, the Greek authorities had warned the group on three occasions before their arrest not to take photographs inside military bases. One well-placed Greek source said they had even been detained for six hours and then released on the personal orders of the Greek Prime Minister.

Yesterday George Papandreou, the Greek Foreign Minister, cancelled a visit to the prison where Mrs Coppin is being held. His officials explained he had changed his mind after journalists criticised him for interfering in the judicial process.

Greek officials are clearly embarrassed by the bizarre saga but seem unsure how to bring it to an end. Alexis Papahellas, a Greek security expert, said: "You have to remember that Greece has been in a near-constant state of mobilisation ever since the war with Turkey in 1974.

"Of course the authorities here think the whole business is crazy but the security services and the police have very strict guidelines.''

In Athens many Greeks expressed sympathy for the detainees. One woman said: "I hope from the bottom of my heart these people will be released soon. This isn't fair and we have always had such good relations with Britain.''

British tourists were not so sympathetic. "The rules against photographing military sites are perfectly clear," one woman said. "I would not have been so incredibly stupid.''

At the court hearing on Tuesday the defence will try to split up the defendants. Law-yers hope some will be given bail. Others face the possibility of 18 months on remand before trial on charges carrying a sentence of up to 20 years.