The Washington Post
Friday, March 26, 2004; Page A14

British Cavers Rescued; Mexico Demands Answers

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service

MEXICO CITY, March 25 -- Five members of a British armed forces expedition and their British guide were rescued Thursday after being trapped for a week in a flooded cave in central Mexico in an incident that has chilled relations with London.

President Vicente Fox has asked his ambassador in London to seek a "detailed, clear and rapid" explanation from the British government of what the military officers were doing in Mexican caves, a spokesman in the president's office said Thursday.

Mexican officials said they should have been notified in advance that there was a foreign military team in Mexico. The spelunking team was made up of British navy, air force and army personnel who entered the country on tourist visas.

[Assistant Interior Secretary Armando Salinas said late Thursday that the six men would be transported to a military hospital and then to a Mexico City detention center, where they would be held while a visa investigation was conducted, the Associated Press reported. Mexican authorities say they may have violated the terms of their visas by participating in scientific or military activities while exploring the caves.]

The six cavers, who were trapped by rising floodwaters on March 17, were in good condition and in constant contact by radio with other members of their expedition, British defense officials said. The men had slept in sleeping bags on a dry ledge inside the cave that runs 90 feet below ground, waiting for British rescue divers who Thursday swam through fast-moving water to reach them, the officials said. The men were then outfitted in scuba gear and led out one at a time along a guide rope.

The trapped Britons had refused several offers of help from Mexican rescuers in recent days, preferring to wait for British cave-rescue specialists to arrive from England, a decision that caused some irritation here, Mexican officials said.

"They refused to be rescued," said Silvestre Rosas Martinez, a public security official in Cuetzalan, the town near Alpazat, an extensive cave system that attracts spelunkers from all over the world. "It seems strange to me that they would refuse help, as there are specialists in this kind of rescue right here in Mexico," Rosas Martinez said.

The decision to wait for British rescuers added to public suspicion about the nature of the cavers' mission. Mexican television and radio programs this week have been filled with speculation about whether the British military was conducting training exercises in Mexico. Some of the wilder speculation even centered on whether they were searching for radon or uranium that could be used to make bombs.

British officials sought to play down such stories. "It is solely a spelunking expedition that does not have any other purpose," the British Embassy here said in a written statement.

British defense officials said 13 members of the Combined Services Caving Association, a group made up of members of several branches of the British military, came to Mexico on a trip to explore the Alpazat cave system, which runs deep below ground and is more than eight miles long.

Kate Wilson, a spokeswoman for the British Defense Ministry, said in a telephone interview from London that the trapped men were "first and foremost" part of a club that practiced mapping caves. She said there have been similar trips to Mexican caves every year for the past two decades. She said that if there had been an "oversight in the paperwork" over the team's visa status, it would be rectified.

"If you are asking, 'Is there a diplomatic incident?' I hope not," Wilson said.

Wilson said the trapped men declined help from Mexico because they were "dry, safe and fine" and in no need of an emergency rescue.

© 2004