UK

FCO presses Eritrea for access to Britons held as spies

Map of Eritrea
Image caption The firm the men work for has said the incident was a misunderstanding

The Foreign Office (FCO) is continuing to press Eritrea for consular access to four Britons held there since December on spying and terrorism charges.

The Eritrean government says the men were detained as they tried to leave Eritrean waters without permission and searches then found a weapons cache.

The private security firm the men work for says they were en route to provide security for ships in the region.

The FCO has imposed sanctions on Eritrean diplomats in the UK.

A Foreign Office spokesman told the BBC: "We continue to press for consular access at the highest level with the Eritrean government.

"We have been urgently seeking consular access but we haven't had a response as yet."

A media release attributed to Eritrea's foreign ministry alleges the four Britons have "fully admitted" illegally entering sovereign Eritrean land bearing arms.

'Attempted to flee'

It says the men have also admitted trying to escape from the Eritrean port of Massawa and have "expressed regret for their actions".

The statement says the Eritrean navy fired warning shots at the men's boats after they made "an attempt to flee" without legal clearance on 24 December.

Eritrean officials searched the island of Romia "where a cache of sniper weapons fitted with silencers, telescopes, distance-monitoring equipments were secured," the statement said.

"Moreover, night-vision binoculars equipped with GPS, together with poison-tipped bullets, bullet-proof vests, specialized communication equipments, as well as V-SAT satellite telephones were seized during the search."

Protection Vessels International (PVI), the private security firm the men work for, says the men had stopped off to resupply and that the incident was a misunderstanding.

In a statement, PVI said the men had realised the "potentially threatening presence of an armed security company making a normal port call for resupply", so had decided to off-load some of its equipment on the island first.

"This equipment included weapons, optics, radios, helmets, body armour and navigation equipment, standard issue for anti-piracy operations, PVI's primary function," PVI's statement said.

'Misconception'

The firm added: "The company acknowledges that its personnel mishandled the situation and we deeply regret the situation we find ourselves in.

"We simply needed to conduct a port call and we very much regret any misconception of presenting a threat to the president of Eritrea and to the Eritrean people."

In response to the lack of consular access to the four Britons, the Foreign Office has imposed sanctions on Eritrean diplomats in the UK.

On 4 May the Eritrean ambassador was informed that, with immediate effect, Eritrean diplomats and visiting officials would be required to obtain the FCO's written permission before travelling beyond London.

On 20 May the ambassador was informed that aspects of the collection of a tax levied by the Eritrean government on Eritreans living in the UK may be unlawful and in breach of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

The ambassador was told that, until it was demonstrated otherwise, the embassy should immediately suspend all activities relating to the collection of the tax.

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