Divers rescued a British military team of cave explorers Thursday trapped in a flooded cavern for more than a week. Mexico ordered the men arrested as a diplomatic dispute over the purpose of the expedition raged.
The cavers appeared tired, but looked far from haggard after eight days under ground. They asked journalists and rescue workers if anybody had brought beer and said they were looking forward to seeking their loved ones.
“We’re feeling quite cheerful,” said Toby Hamnett, one of those rescued. The extraction effort took divers about six hours, including a break to resupply compressed air tanks.
The team — four members of the British military and two British civilians — surfaced safely to a raging diplomatic spat between Mexico and Britain.
Mexican authorities say the divers may have violated the terms of their visas by participating in scientific or military activities while exploring the caves.
An order from Vicente Fox
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
Salinas refused to say what punishment the Britons could face, but said the migration law provides for the expulsion or jailing of those who violate their visas.
The detention order came after President Vicente Fox sent “a protest and a demand for clarification from the English government. Why were those people there?”
Mexico expressed “profound concern” that the military cave explorers had failed to seek permission to enter the country for scientific explorations.
The text of a diplomatic note asked “a detailed explanation of the type of activities” the group was carrying out “and about the objectives of their investigation.”
One Mexican newspaper suggested the explorers might have been hunting for uranium.
Britain’s Foreign Office said in London that the trip was “strictly a caving expedition, had no other purpose and any suggestions to the contrary are completely unfounded.”
U.K. alleges 'official military' statusBritish officials said similar teams had been openly visiting for 20 years and were helping to map the massive cavern system.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense said the men were on an “official military adventurous training expedition” of a military caving club, though not a formal military exercise.
Some Mexican news media expressed irritation that the cavers had shrugged off repeated Mexican offers of help at the same time they were calling in rescue divers from Britain.
Scores of heavily armed state policemen guarded the cave site at the bottom of a steep canyon at the end of a single-file trail through farm and forest land bursting with springs and rivulets of water.
As a safety precaution, half of the cave diving team was above ground when heavy rains triggered floods blocking the cave’s entrance on March 17.