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Thursday, 13 December, 2001, 11:20 GMT
Plane-spotters' holiday nightmare
Plane-spotters at court in Greece
Greek authorities have taken a dim view of the hobby
Indulging his passion for plane-spotting in the glorious Greek sunshine might have seemed like the ideal break to Yorkshireman Andrew Jenkins.

The 32-year-old, together with 13 fellow enthusiasts, had planned to spend a week collecting the makes and model numbers of planes.

Each had paid 650 for the trip to visit Greek military bases, organised by Suffolk-based Touchdown Tours.

But a warning on the company's own website could have perhaps given the jet fans pause for thought.

Prophetic warning

The message reads: "I would warn that spotting in Greece is still not particularly liked by the authorities and without our contacts at the Greek Ministry of Defence, which helped on a number of occasions, the trip might have been a little longer than anticipated!"

But any contacts its author Paul Coppin believed he had in the Greek Government failed him and his tour party on this occasion.

For the 45-year-old owner of Touchdown Tours has also been languishing in jail for the past five weeks.

They really are just about at the end of their tether

Jean Butt

The holidaymakers were arrested on 8 November at a public open day on a military base near Kalamata.

They were initially charged with taking pictures in a restricted area after they were reported for "looking suspicious".

That was later changed to the far more serious charge of spying, which carries a 20-year maximum sentence.

Bewildered, the Brits and two Dutch enthusiasts protested their innocence while they tried to explain to bemused Greek authorities exactly what it is they enjoy about watching planes for hours on end.

Turkey connection

Plane-spotting is almost unheard of outside Britain, and Greece is particularly nervous about spying due to tensions with its neighbour Turkey.

Matters were complicated further when it emerged that Mr Coppin visited Turkey in May, as a guest of the Turkish military.

He says he was there as an aviation journalist but the Greeks have asked Turkey to reveal anything it knows about the group, while officials in Athens say the group was warned three times not to photograph military bases.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw
Mr Straw is striving to free the group with diplomacy

Three weeks ago Prime Minister Tony Blair tried to intervene but Greek officials refused to interfere in a judicial matter.

Foreign Office minister Dennis McShane used an international summit in Romania to tell Greek ministers that the British government was "very, very angry".

And in Brussels, Euro MPs added their voices of concern, prompting European Parliament president Nicole Fontaine is to write to the Greek government urging a swift end to the crisis.

By last week angry relatives were losing their patience with diplomatic efforts.

'Profound shock'

They accused Foreign Secretary Jack Straw of complacency and urged him to "get his finger out" as they contemplated a Christmas with their loved ones behind bars.

Things looked even bleaker earlier this week when a Greek state prosecutor recommended they face trial.

Meanwhile in jail, the plane-spotters were said to be in "profound shock" at their predicament.

"They really are just about at the end of their tether," said Mr Coppin's mother, Jean Butt.

Anxious families

Good news finally arrived on Wednesday, when the judges reduced the charges to a misdemeanour.

Their anxious families now have to set about raising the 9,000 bail for each of them to allow them to fly home before Christmas.

British businesses and individuals have reportedly stepped in to help after complaints from the families that they could not raise the money.

But the Foreign Office said taxpayers' money could not be used to pay bail for Britons accused of offences abroad.

See also:

10 Dec 01 | Europe
Dutch prisoners 'in low spirits'
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