Nine British tourists on a trip to Inner Mongolia have been detained by the Chinese authorities on suspicion of terror links.
The travellers – a group of 20 friends and family – are mainly wealthy professionals and retirees, from South African, Britain and Indian on a bespoke tour of “ancient China”.
They were arrested just before 10am on Friday morning as they boarded a plane from the city of Ordos in the semi-autonomous region on the border with Russia.
The group, made up of doctors and company directors, had been visiting a mausoleum dedicated to Ghengis Khan as part of a 45-day tour of China.
According to relatives, their mobile phones were confiscated and they have been held without charge in police cells, unable to contact family or seek consular help, for 48 hours. On Monday, their tour guide realised they were missing and raised the alarm.
No charges have yet been brought and the Chinese authorities remain tight-lipped about the reason for the arrests. They suggested to relatives that some of those detained had been watching “propaganda videos” in their hotel rooms.
Among those being held are retirees Ismail Jacobs, 72, a former member of the ANC’s armed wing which fought apartheid who is in his 60s, and his wife Tahira, 67, who have dual South African-British nationality.
Like many anti-apartheid activists, the couple lived in exile in the UK before the advent of democracy in 1994. They have a detached home in Hounslow and owned beauty companies and nail bars in Middlesex, but are thought to now live in South Africa.
Mr Jacobs is the uncle of Shameel Joosub, CEO of Vodacom, the South African arm of mobile phone giant Vodafone. Mr Joosub’s brother, Salim Aziz Joosub, the CEO of another technology firm in South Africa, has also detained.
Mr Joosub said in a statement that he was “deeply concerned” for their wellbeing. “Along with 17 other South African, British and Indian citizens, they were detained on 10 July by the Chinese authorities at the airport in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, and held without charge,” he said.
“We are in close contact with the South African authorities who are working to secure their release.”
Others who have been identified include Dr Feroz Suliman, a South African surgeon at a private hospital near Johannesburg, and his wife Shehnaaz Mohamed, also a medical doctor.
The identities of the 15 other tourists are not yet known.
After intervention by British and South African consular teams on Tuesday morning, 11 of the 20 have been told they are free to leave – but will be held in custody in Ordos until the next flight departs on July 19.
The remaining nine people, three Britons, five South Africans and the Indian national, were on Tuesday afternoon still being held without charge. Mr Jacobs and his wife are understood to be among those still facing the prospect of charges.
Inner Mongolia has no known terror or rebel groups so it remains unclear which organisation they were suspected of links to.
Gift of the Givers, a South African charity which usually negotiates hostage releases as well as conducting aid drops, was contacted by Mr Joosub for help alerting the authorities.
“The families call upon the Chinese government to release the detainees immediately,” the charity said in a statement. “These individuals have no terror links, no criminal record in their country.”
The arrest is particularly awkward for South Africa, whose deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa is on a state visit to China, a key ally and fellow member of the BRICS economic grouping, at present.
Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of GoTG, said he understood the arrests were carried out by airport police after an order from the national police headquarters in Beijing.
“There were no charges put to them and their cell phones were confiscated so they could not tell anyone they had been arrested,” he told The Telegraph.
“It was then mentioned that one of the group had links to a terror group but they haven’t said which. The tour guide has seen them – they apparently look in good health but they are being held in conditions that are not good, in cells.”
He said the group was a mixture of family members and friends, some of whom had travelled together to other parts of the world previously.
He said that they had opted to include a doctor in their group because some of the travellers were over 60.
A spokesman for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office said it was making enquiries into the reasons for the arrests.
“Nine British nationals, and two dual British-South African nationals have been detained in northern China. Consular staff have visited the group to provide assistance and we are liaising with Chinese authorities,” the spokesman said.