Fri, Mar 26, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Britain looks to end row over speleologists' study

AFP , CUETZALAN, MEXICO

Britain on Wednesday sought to defuse a brewing diplomatic row with Mexico over six British speleologists trapped in a cave for seven days, saying the men were in Mexico on a purely scientific mission and may not be in any danger after all.

"It's important to remember that this is not in any way an emergency," the British Embassy in Mexico City said in a statement released in Spanish. "The lives of these people are not in danger."

But the situation that grows more mysterious with every passing day has already attracted the attention of of President Vicente Fox, who said he had instructed his foreign minister, Luis Ernesto Derbez, to demand explanations from London and lodge a protest.

A search for the six, two of them members of the British military, was launched a week ago when rains over the western state of Puebla caused flash floods and inundated the entrance to caverns here being explored by a 12-member British team.

Half the group has emerged from the vast caverns safely, but the fate of the remaining six remains unknown.

The Mexican army has sent in 20 experts in efforts to reach the trapped explorers. But the search is being complicated by the size of the caverns, which stretch for more than 50km.

Meanwhile, a British official who met privately with Mexican authorities acknowledged that nine of the 12 explorers were members of the British armed forces. The officials insisted, however, that the expedition was not a military operation but private trip arranged by the team.

"The speleologists were carrying out a civilian mission that has scientific goals," the embassy continued.

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