What Are Trapped Britons Doing in My Cave Anyway, Demands Mexican President; ROW OVER WHY MILITARY PERSONNEL UNDERTOOK EXPEDITION ON TOURIST VISAS

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Byline: ALEXA BARACAIA

THE SAGA of the British soldiers trapped in a cave in Mexico threatened to blow up today into a major diplomatic row.

As British divers arrived at the mountain town of Cuetzalan to assist with rescue operations, Mexican president Vicente Fox demanded to know why the foreign military expedition was in his country at all.

It is suggested they only hold tourist visas - but exploration teams require special visas, and foreign military exercises are outlawed.

Mr Fox said: "I have instructed the minister of foreign relations to take immediate action and file a note of protest, and demand a clarification from the English Government about why these individuals are in Mexico.

"We are asking the British Government to tell us whether these people are military personnel - and if they are, what they are doing there."

The row comes at a highly sensitive time for UK-Mexican diplomatic relations, following reports last month that British and US security services spied on the Mexican mission to the United Nations in the run up to the Iraq war last year.

But the British ambassador to Mexico, Vijay Rangarajan, today dismissed as "pure fantasy" concerns that the cavers were doing anything other than exploring.

"I think we just need to talk to the Mexican government and find out what their problems are," he said.

"If they're having problems, we'll have to look very carefully in the future to see if any future permits are needed."

The six-man team, including members of the Army, Navy and RAF, have been trapped in the Alpazat cave system for more than eight nights.

Flash floods blocked their exit and they are sheltering 120 feet down in a dry area deeper in the complex.

They are part of a 12-strong Combined Services Caving Association expedition, Cuetzalan Tiger 2004. Six, including group leader Major Steve Whitlock, remain above ground.

The trapped group are said to be hoping water levels will soon drop sufficiently for them to walk out of the caves, 120 miles north-east of Mexico City. …