UK & World News
Peru Drugs Bust: Pair 'Forced At Gunpoint'
A British and an Irish woman arrested on suspicion of cocaine-smuggling in Peru have said they were forced at gunpoint by Colombian gangsters, it has been claimed.
Melissa Reid, 19, and Michaella McCollum Connolly, 20, are being held after 11kg (24.2lbs) of cocaine with an estimated street value of £1.5m was found in their luggage.
Archbishop of Lima Sean Walsh, who visited the pair in a police holding centre in capital city Lima, claimed the two women - one a Scot and the second from Northern Ireland - had no choice but to follow orders.
Sean Walsh, an Irish-American archbishop with the Eastern Catholic Church, said: "They told me that there were a group of Colombians that actually took them at gunpoint and threatened them."
The Archbishop said the women were held for a while by the gang before being taken to Morocco and back again to Peru.
"I don't know how that happened, and I don't know how they got over to Peru," he said.
"There's no direct flight from Morocco, they go through Spain probably, but if they threatened them in some way that to me seems like a credible defence.
"If they have been coerced or threatened as I think they are going to argue, then the fact that they physically had it in their possession may not mean that they were intentionally or wilfully doing it.
"If they were forced with threats on their life or something then they might not have gone through with this."
He had earlier said that Reid, from Kirkintilloch in East Dunbartonshire, and McCollum Connolly, from Dungannon in County Tyrone, were "weepy and upset".
Sky sources understand a British police officer and a British embassy official based in Lima have visited the pair.
They are understood to have been picked up by profiling in the flight queue and questioned. It is not thought that Spanish authorities were involved in the arrest.
Lawyer Peter Madden, who is representing the McCollum Connolly family, said: "Michaela's family are obviously shocked and distressed by the recent events but are confident that Michaela will be exonerated.
"The family fully support her and they are making arrangements to travel to Peru. They have contacted support groups in Lima to ensure that her current needs are met. I am arranging legal representation for her in Lima.
"I spoke to Michaela last night and she emphasised that she denied that she was guilty of any offence. She is well. She is not on hunger strike. She is finding it difficult to cope with the current situation, so far from home, but is optimistic."
It comes after video was released showing the two women answering police officers' questions shortly after they were arrested at an airport near Lima, last week.
The police footage also shows an officer examining a row of food bags, in which the drug was allegedly hidden.
Police accused the two of acting as "drug mules" to carry the contraband back to Europe.
Reid told officers: "I was forced to take these bags in my luggage."
Asked if she knew the bags contained drugs, Reid replied: "I did not know that."
The father of Reid told Sky News Scotland Correspondent Jane Chilton that his family is devastated by the arrest.
William Reid said she was a beautiful and intelligent young woman who would never do anything like this of her own free will.
Ireland's former consul to Peru Michael Russell told Sky News: "There are various rumours or stories about what has happened.
"The main thing is not what happened but what the Peruvian courts believe. They are in very spartan conditions, not up to European standards.
"They are supposed to be up in front of a judge tomorrow and then they will be transferred to a prison."
He added: "This could be very bad timing for these girls if these laws come in. There is a lot of pressure to stamp out crime with more police guards, tougher sentences - and that is across the board, not just for drug smugglers."
He told the Irish Times that prosecutors may push for a charge of drug trafficking, which could carry a sentence of between 15 and 25 years in prison.
He said that if the women were convicted of carrying half of the cocaine each, they would likely be ordered to serve around seven years in jail.
But he added that any appeal would probably see the allegations reduced to the "lesser charge".
The pair confirmed to police at the Lima airport that they had travelled to the South American country from Spain, and then on a Peruvian domestic flight to Cuzco.
They reportedly stayed four days in Cuzco, which is 350-miles south east of Lima, before returning to the capital.
Both women were detained the following day at Lima's Jorge Chavez International Airport.
Peruvian police said the two had been held and their luggage examined after a sniffer dog detected drugs at the Air Europa check-in counter.
Reid was allegedly carrying 18 foil packets containing 5.78kg of cocaine while McCollum Connolly was accused of carrying 5.81kg of the drug in 16 bags hidden in food sachets.
They pair said they were planning to travel to Madrid and then to the Mediterranean island of Majorca. They had apparently spent several weeks before the Peru trip living in Ibiza.
Reid had posted dozens of Facebook photos of her time on the island, although her profile had not been updated since late July.
Belfast-born McCollum Connolly, who refers to herself as just Michaella McCollum in the video, had reportedly been looking for work as a nightclub dancer and hostess in Ibiza.
The apparent disappearance from Ibiza of McCollum Connolly had sparked an online campaign back home, backed by a number of Irish sports stars, to establish her whereabouts.
McCollum Connolly was travelling on an Irish passport.
A representative for the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin confirmed she was no longer considered missing and that consular assistance was being provided to her family.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is offering assistance to Reid while she is in custody.
The FCO said in a statement: "We can confirm the arrest of a British national in Peru on August 7. We are providing consular assistance."
Drug experts say Peru has almost certainly supplanted Colombia as the world's leading cocaine-producing country and the trade is used to fund a violent leftist insurgency.
:: On Monday, two bodies of suspected Shining Path rebel leaders were taken to Lima for DNA testing, after the pair died in a shootout with security forces a day earlier.