Iran General NewsFree our sailors, UK tells Iran

Free our sailors, UK tells Iran

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The Guardian: Britain yesterday demanded the return of 15 sailors and marines seized by the Iranian navy in a channel separating Iraq and Iran. The Guardian

Britain demands explanation of incident

Ewen MacAskill in Washington, Julian Borger and Richard Norton-Taylor

Britain yesterday demanded the return of 15 sailors and marines seized by the Iranian navy in a channel separating Iraq and Iran.

Iran’s ambassador to London, Rasoul Movahedian, was summoned to the Foreign Office and asked for an explanation of the incident, in which a British patrol conducting a routine search of traffic in the Shatt al-Arab waterway was surrounded by Iranian vessels and detained.

Margaret Beckett, the foreign secretary, said the British patrol had been inside Iraqi waters “in support of the government of Iraq to stop smuggling” and that the Iranian envoy “was left in no doubt that we want them back”.

The Iranian government had made no comment on the incident by late last night but a US navy official, Commander Kevin Aandahl, said Iran’s revolutionary guard naval forces had broadcast a brief radio message saying the British had been detained because they were operating inside Iranian waters and that they had not been harmed.

The crisis comes at a time of high tension between Iran and the west, with the UN security council due to vote today on new sanctions against Iran over its refusal to halt uranium enrichment for its nuclear programme.

The 15 sailors and marines from the frigate HMS Cornwall were all believed to be safe last night, and their next of kin had been informed. Their two “ribs” (rigid inflatable boats) had been watched by a Royal Navy helicopter as they boarded a large dhow carrying a cargo of vehicles and as they were then surrounded by six Iranian patrol boats and taken into Iranian waters.

“We know that there was no fighting, there was no engagement of weapons or anything like that; it was entirely peaceful,” said Commodore Nick Lambert, commander of the Cornwall, the leading ship in the taskforce whose main mission is to protect Iraqi oilfields and exports from criminals and terrorists.

“We have been assured from the scant communications that we have had with the Iranians at the tactical level that 15 people are safely in their hands,” he said.

The commodore added that after the patrol had carried out a “compliant boarding” of the dhow, contact with the British servicemen had been lost.

Commodore Lambert said he hoped the incident was the result of a misunderstanding. “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that they were in Iraqi territorial waters. Equally, the Iranians may well claim that they were in Iranian territorial waters,” he said.

“The extent and definition of territorial waters in this part of the world is very complicated. We may find, and I hope we will find, that this is a simple misunderstanding at a tactical level.”

In July 2004, eight British sailors and marine commandos were seized after three patrol boats were said to have strayed into the Iranian side of the Shatt al-Arab waterway. The men were blindfolded, held for three days, and paraded on Iranian television. Iran kept the boats.

Britain’s ambassador to Iran, Geoffrey Adams, repeated Britain’s demands to Iranian officials in Tehran, but by late evening there had been no clear response, the absence of many officials during Norouz holiday contributing to the confusion.

The US also called for Iran to release the 15 marines. Sean McCormack, the state department spokesman, said: “We support the British demand for the safe return of their people and equipment.”

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