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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 6 November, 2002, 16:08 GMT
Inside the 'spy trial' airbase
Paul Coppin and Steve Rush take a break from court
Spotters take a break by a poster for this year's air show - the one they got arrested at last year

With 11 British plane-spotters attempting to convince the Greek court that they are not guilty of espionage, BBC News Online has been given exclusive access to the military airbase at the centre of the trial.
The home of the 120 Air Training Wing is hardly bristling with security. A bored young conscript in an ill-fitting steel helmet slouches in front of his sentry hut. A loaded assault rifle slung across his chest, the youth distractedly opens and closes the Velcro flap on his ammo belt.


The security officer politely reminds me that photography is forbidden

This airbase - which sits on a plain thick with reeds just outside the coastal town of Kalamata - is the epicentre of a bizarre spy trial.

Almost exactly one year ago, a tour group of 14 plane-spotters - 12 of them British - were arrested while attending an annual open day here and charged with espionage. On learning that BBC News Online has been granted a special tour of the base, some of the plane-spotters back in Greece to appeal against their convictions appear somewhat jealous.

Passing under the raised barriers of the checkpoint, it is hard to share their enthusiasm. I'm waved through by two security guards, who make no attempt to check my credentials.

Flight school

Directed to leave my vehicle in the very same car park where the plane-spotters were surrounded by armed troops last year, I'm invited into a jeep by two obliging members of the security force.

Screen grab on Zap16.com
Greek military pictures are available easily - here on Zap16.com
About 1,200 personnel work at the air field, but few are in evidence today. Heavy cloud and rain showers have grounded the novice pilots the base's instructors train to fly.

In the absence of engine noise, the chirp of crickets can be heard from the long grass and barbed wire which surround the two runways. Just a few feet from the base gates - and clearly visible from the main public road - we stop on the tarmac beside a maintenance hanger.

This was the only area open to the public during the Air Force Day celebrations last year. Here the plane-spotters were accused of noting down 30 aircraft serial numbers, an act said to compromise Greek state security.

Then the tarmac was graced by fighter jets flown in especially for the day. Today just a handful of aged, camouflage-painted trainer jets are visible, their cockpits exposed, their Perspex canopies placed on the ground beside them.

Plane-spotter clutches air craft manual
The ordeal has not put the aviation buffs off planes
Our jeep starts up again, heading past a search and rescue helicopter and a huge transport plane, and on towards the parts of the base the plane-spotters only saw last year with the aid of a telescope.

Skirting up one side of the main three-kilometre-long runway, we weave between camouflaged concrete buildings, anti-aircraft guns, dowdy corrugated iron shelters and a hotchpotch of military and civilian vehicles.

New planes spotted

The security officer at the wheel explains - aided when lost for English words by a young conscript sitting behind - that the base is being expanded. He points to construction works to our left. "Next comes a kennel block, guard dogs," he says.

Two of the plane-spotters caught on camera
Two of the plane-spotters caught on TV camera
The three squadrons based at Kalamata are in the process of being equipped with new aircraft. Some of the obsolete red and white T-37 jets have already met an ignoble end, abandoned to rot in the grass by the runway.

Well away from the public gaze at the far end of the airfield sit rows of the Greek Air Force's brand new training planes - the smart blue and white T-6.

The plane-spotters back at Kalamata's court might appreciate the gift of a few T-6 tail numbers - but the security officer politely reminds me that photography and note-taking are forbidden.

Squadron leader Nektarios Samaras
Nektarios Samaras gives evidence in court
Back at the base gate, my escort bids me a friendly farewell. At the same instant, squadron leader Nektarios Samaras pulls up in his jeep.

This was the officer who first arrested the plane-spotters and he has spent the day being grilled by the judges and lawyers at their appeal hearing in town. Spotting a member of the British press, he glowers angrily as his vehicle rolls past.


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