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Wednesday, 24 April, 2002, 17:20 GMT 18:20 UK
Greek patience tested over plane-spotting
Paul and Lesley Coppin
Planespotters are not the only ones concerned

Standing accused of spying on the Greek Air Force has been an ordeal for the British plane-spotters on trial in Kalamata. But the local people are now also feeling aggrieved by the whole affair.

Kalamata's air base is hardly the stuff dream holidays are made of. The military training jets which screech into the skies from its busy runway flood the air with fuel fumes, and the neighbourhood - with its shantytown of Albanian Roma - is far from salubrious.

That anyone would travel all the way from the UK just to visit such a place puzzles many locals. That these visitors should then act suspiciously despite forewarning from the huge sign at the front gate forbidding photography baffles Kalamatans even more.

Charges

Consequently, the local population is quite content to see the 12 British plane-spotters accused of spying at an air show last November answer these charges in court.


Greece has been let down. Some Greeks have told me that what is being written about us is not fair

Maria Patriarhea
From the busy trunk road which passes the air base, it is quite easy to see many jets and helicopters sitting on the Tarmac. Once airborne, these pieces of "secret" military hardware fly directly over Kalamata - and the court where the plane-spotters are being tried.

A lazy spy need not leave his hotel room to collect the type of information the plane-spotters are accused of gathering.

Impatient

However, ordinary Greek people are growing impatient with the constant jibes they understand are being made in the British media about their military, their justice system, and their fear of spies.

Several of the plane-spotters at last year's trial
Handcuffed at the previous court appearance
"Greece was subject of sharp attacks by certain of the British media," readers of the Kalamata daily newspaper, Courage, were told on the eve of the trial. "British people were told to boycott Greek products and not to holiday in Greece."

Local primary school teacher Maria Patriarhea has taken a keen interest in the case and says relations between Greeks and Britons, usually so cordial, have soured over the plane-spotting affair.

"Greece has been let down. Some Greeks have told me that what is being written about us is not fair. We are being given a bad reputation, one that is utterly wrong. This incident has brought out some ugly sentiments," Mrs Patriarhea says.

Troops

Mrs Patriarhea's father fought against the invading Nazis and she says he was one of those who aided the more than 3,000 British and Commonwealth troops who took refuge in the mountains around Kalamata during World War II.

"The local people took care of your British boys, they hid them, protected them, and risked their lives for them. Greece has always fought alongside the British, which is more than can be said for Turkey."

That Paul Coppin - the leader of the accused plane-spotters - was reported to have had dealings with the Turkish military arouses the suspicions of many Greeks. Some came to the conclusion that the spotters must indeed be spies.


The bonds between Greece and Britain are so strong that they are not likely to be broken by this

Colonel Pierros Platanas
"This country was enslaved by Turkey for 400 years," says Mrs Patriarhea. "The British don't seem to understand how we feel about Turkey. I heard a Greek man in the court say the plane-spotters should be given a 20-year sentence, after which they'll understand more about this country, and why it has acted why it has over this case."

Colonel Pierros Platanas, chairman of the union of retired air force officers and a 33-year veteran of the Kalamata base, thinks Greek outrage will abate.

"Time always heals wounds. The bonds between Greece and Britain are so strong that they are not likely to be broken by this."

Biplane

Indeed, the colonel certainly seems to have a liking for the Royal Air Force - a picture of a British biplane takes pride of place beside the Greek flag above his desk at the veterans' club.

"We were disappointed by this event. We know that this was an isolated incident and not all British people act like this but the plane-spotters abused our hospitality. We are a very hospitable people."

The Greeks seem fiercely proud of their country judging by the number of national flags flying, and Kalamata is clearly proud of the air force which plays such a vital role in local life.

Foreign criticism is not welcomed, says Colonel Platanas.

"We are fond of the British but we hope the British will show understanding at the disappointment we feel. I hope the British will condemn what has been said about Greece."


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