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Monday, 12 November, 2001, 07:20 GMT
Mission to rescue Drake's body
Portobela Bay
Drake's body lies off the coast of Portobela Bay
A mission to return the body of Sir Francis Drake to England is set to go ahead after the government lifted a ban on the search.

The Elizabethan hero, who led the battle against the Spanish Armada, was buried at sea off the Pacific coast of Panama in a lead casket in 1596 after dying of dysentery.

The crew behind the mission plan to trace the exact burial spot in Portobela Bay and return Drake to his home city of Plymouth.

They are making the trip after Ministry of Defence officials overturned an earlier decision to classify the site as a war grave - thereby banning divers from disturbing the site.

Drake
Sir Francis Drake fought the Spanish Armada
Underwater search expert David Mearns, who is making a television programme about the project, says he has won approval from Whitehall for his plan.

This move reverses the policy of former defence secretary Malcolm Rifkind who refused to support an earlier search in 1991.

The line was held again in 1995 when Lord Lewin, then Admiral of the Fleet intervened, and there was a further refusal two years ago.

'Concern expressed'

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "The burial site is not designated as a war grave under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.

"It is not up to the Ministry of Defence to sanction this expedition. All we can do is express our concern."

Mr Mearns said he now expects the authorities in Panama to give permission to find the coffin.

He said: "Panama is perfectly capable of making sure that anyone who comes to work there is genuine and has good intentions.

"We have a track record of doing things the right way and getting permission for our work from different countries. We are keen to follow local laws.

"I would be really surprised if the Panamanian Government said no. I believe it is very likely they will agree."


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See also:

31 Oct 01 | England
Fight for submariner's sea grave
24 Jul 01 | UK
Wreck of HMS Hood found
27 Jun 01 | Scotland
Divers find destroyer wreck
14 Feb 01 | Scotland
Plans to protect sea graves
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