Plane spotters due home today

PUBLISHED: 06:50 15 December 2001 | UPDATED: 11:02 03 March 2010

A FIVE-week nightmare will end today when the British plane-spotters accused of spying in Greece arrive home for an emotional reunion with their loved ones.

A FIVE-week nightmare will end today when the British plane-spotters accused of spying in Greece arrive home for an emotional reunion with their loved ones.

The 12 Britons – including Suffolk couple Paul and Lesley Coppin – along with two Dutch men were finally released yesterday to the relief of families waiting at home.

However, the delays and red tape which have dogged them since their arrest continued right to the end.

MEP Richard Howitt, who has campaigned on their behalf, said he was forced to call Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in Brussels to help resolve the bureaucratic delays that threatened yesterday's release.

"This was the latest ghastly episode in what was a whole disaster. I'm just so glad it's ended and they have been set free," Mr Howitt said.

Some of the spotters described their prison stay as an ordeal, but were happy they will be home for Christmas.

The 13 men had been held in a prison in Nafplion, 56 miles south of Athens, since November 12 while Mrs Coppin, 51, was in Korydallos prison near Athens, where she had to share a cell, shower and toilet with up to 14 women. They were let out after each posted bail of around £9,000.

Mrs Coppin is not interested in plane-spotting and only went on the tour as a belated honeymoon after her marriage to her husband who organised the tour.

Mr Coppin, who was one of the first to be freed, told reporters waiting outside the prison: "It's quite interesting to see a different side of Greece other than a prison. It's really good to be out."

The 45-year-old then faced another wait for his wife to be released later in the afternoon. The couple, of Worlington Road, Mildenhall, have been separated since soon after their arrest.

Mr Coppin's mother Jean Butt, who lives in Downham Market, Norfolk, said she was overjoyed at their release.

"I have seen Paul on television and it feels wonderful to know he is free. I shall be over the moon when I see him. He looks thinner after his ordeal and I can't wait until he is home.

"We always get together as a family at Christmas but this year it will be extra special."

West Suffolk MP Richard Spring, who campaigned for the spotters' release, said: "I am delighted to know they are free. However, it has been a traumatic and shocking experience for them and their families."

The case has strained relations between Britain, the Netherlands and Greece, all EU and Nato members. Prime Minister Tony Blair talked about the case with his Greek counterpart Costas Simitis, while their foreign ministers discussed it at length.

Mr Spring said the case raised questions about the Greek justice system and why the spotters could not have been sent home in line with new European Union procedures.

The 11 Britons and two Dutchmen in Nafplion were originally to be released in the morning all together, but left the prison in small groups throughout the day because of bureaucratic delays.

"It's been a long day, but a successful day and they will be home for the weekend and home for Christmas," said British Consul Donald Holder.

The group was arrested on November 8 after attending an aircraft show at a military base in the town of Kalamata. Originally accused of espionage, they were ordered to be released on Wednesday after a panel of three judges in Kalamata ruled to reduce the charges to the lesser offence of illegal information collection and set the bail.

The group is free to leave the country and are due to arrive at Luton airport this morning courtesy of low fares airline easyJet. They must return to Greece to face trial on the lesser charge although no trial date has been set.

The group claims they did not violate the ban on photography at military installations and were only engaged in their hobby of observing and taking notes about aircraft.

Greek authorities said the group was warned on three occasions before their arrest that photography was not allowed in military areas and that their activities were regarded as suspicious.

Plane spotting is virtually unknown in Greece, which has a tradition of tight military controls because of long-standing tensions with neighbouring Turkey.

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