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Blair's plea over plane spotters

PUBLISHED: 07:20 29 November 2001 | UPDATED: 10:56 03 March 2010

PRIME Minister Tony Blair has called on the Greek authorities to act swiftly to deal with the 12 British plane spotters accused of espionage, telling the Commons that most people would recognise them as tourists.

PRIME Minister Tony Blair has called on the Greek authorities to act swiftly to deal with the 12 British plane spotters accused of espionage, telling the Commons that most people would recognise them as tourists.

Mr Blair, who last week spoke to his opposite number in Athens, yesterday said: "I hope that we can resolve this issue as swiftly and satisfactorily as possible."

He said foreign secretary Jack Straw had had talks with his counterpart in Greece, adding: "Whatever the difficulties are, I think most people who look at this will understand that these people are indeed tourists."

The Prime Minister's comments, in response to a general inquiry on British tourists to Greece, came after Tories accused the Government of inaction over the case in which Mildenhall couple, Paul and Lesley Coppin, have been held in custody following their arrest for allegedly taking photographs of aeroplanes at a Greek military establishment.

Shadow foreign secretary Michael Ancram, who wrote to Mr Straw a week ago, sent another latter yesterday protesting: "There is no evidence, and you have not provided me with any, that you are doing anything effective to try to resolve the situation.

"Obviously Greek law must prevail, but the detaining in prison, the length of time that is being taken in dealing with the situation are surely matters on which you can, and should, make the strongest representations. I would welcome your urgent assurance that you are doing so."

Meanwhile, the region's European and Westminster MPs are putting on the pressure to get the Coppins, and the other 10 British and two Dutch plane spotters, released.

Geoffrey van Orden, Conservative MEP for the East of England, has been in Greece speaking to top officials and said: "The situation is absolutely disgraceful. I am appalled at the latest turn of events. I flew to Athens to see Lesley Coppin in the Korydallos Central Women's Prison in Athens on Tuesday and I have been in constant touch with very senior Greek officials.

"The Greek authorities admit the matter has been badly handled and is turning into a diplomatic embarrassment.

"From the start, even Greek legal authorities struggling to understand the curious hobby of plane spotting recognised that there was no conspiracy and that no evidence of any suspicious activity existed against a number of the accused. These people have therefore been held in custody for almost three weeks on no justifiable basis."

East region Labour Euro MP Richard Howitt, who is now following Mr van Orden in flying to Greece, said: "The judge's decision is nonsensical in keeping the issue on hold for another two weeks. These people and their families have been through enough already. It is inhumane to treat them like this.

"I have asked the President of the European Parliament to arrange diplomatic intervention with the Greek authorities. I also intend to fly to Greece tomorrow , seeking to meet with the prisoners and their lawyers."

The Coppin's constituency MP, Richard Spring (Conservative, West Suffolk) said he was "absolutely horrified" at the sight of the accused in handcuffs.

"The Greeks have their own judicial process but it is beyond belief what is happening to these people."

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