AFP: Tehran has broadcast new television footage of detained British naval personnel as high emotions threatened to derail diplomatic efforts to secure the release of the 15 sailors and marines. TEHRAN, April 2, 2007 (AFP) – Tehran has broadcast new television footage of detained British naval personnel as high emotions threatened to derail diplomatic efforts to secure the release of the 15 sailors and marines.
Top officials continued to trade barbs and Iranian students staged a rock- and firecracker-throwing demonstration at the British embassy in Tehran, while Iran’s foreign ministry urged the US president to steer clear of the matter.
Britain and Iran said they were engaged in direct talks but Tehran has so far refused to bow to pressure to free the 15.
Britain insists they were on a routine anti-smuggling patrol in Iraqi waters under a UN mandate, but the Islamic republic says they were captured because they strayed into its territorial waters.
Images broadcast on Iranian state television’s Arabic language channel late Sunday showed two of the naval personnel separately, each standing in front of an Iranian chart of the northern Gulf waters where they were seized on March 23.
One of them said he could understand why Iran was “angry” about “our intrusion into your waters,” while the other pointed to a place on the map where they were “apparently” taken captive while “inside Iranian territorial waters.”
The captives said they were being well-treated but Britain was quick to condemn the new pictures as “unacceptable,” a foreign ministry spokeswoman said.
US President George W. Bush, who has backed Britain in its attempts to free the naval personnel, has called the sailors and marines “hostages” and urged their release, words which drew a harsh retort from Iran on Sunday.
“It is better for the US president to refrain from making ill-considered, non-technical and irrational comments,” state television quoted foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini as saying.
Washington has rejected any suggestion that the 15 could be swapped for five Iranian officials held without charge since January by US forces in Iraq.
The United States’ ties with Tehran have been severed for decades following the 1980 hostage crisis.
An Iranian military chief on Sunday accused US warplanes of violating Iranian airspace in the southwestern oil province of Khuzestan, charges that were denied by the US military.
Speaking in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dismissed suggestions that a US plan to strike Iran, Syria and Lebanon was being coordinated with Washington’s key ally in the Middle East, Israel.
“Declarations that there is an American plan to strike Iran that is being coordinated with Israel which would at the same time attack Syria and Lebanon is not familiar to me, and is a baseless rumour,” Olmert said.
Meanwhile, the foreign ministers of Britain and Iran confirmed that they were engaged in direct talks over the detentions.
Britain’s Defence Secretary Des Browne told BBC television that Britain was doing everything it could to resolve the matter by diplomatic means as soon as possible.
“We are in direct bilateral communication with the Iranians and they know that not only are we in a very clear position but that we have the support of almost all of the international community,” he said.
Iran confirmed the direct talks, saying contacts had never been cut.
“They were never cut and so there was no need to restart them,” an Iranian official told AFP.
Earlier in the day, firecrackers exploded inside the British embassy compound in Tehran which was heavily guarded by anti-riot police and scaffolding to keep the protesters, members of the hardline Basij volunteer militia, at bay.
The students chanted “Death to Britain” and “Death to America” and called for the 15 sailors and marines to be punished. Police dispersed the crowd after two hours.
The current European Union president, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, visiting Israel on Sunday, said Britain had Germany’s full backing in the conflict.
“We demand the release of the 15 soldiers and we are standing by Britain’s side,” she said.
The US government has also supported diplomatic efforts, with some observers in the United States saying the affair would only deepen Iran’s international isolation.
But USA Today newspaper wrote in an editorial that a diplomatic solution was the only option “for the time being.”
“Letting diplomats work things out can seem a frustratingly insufficient response to provocation — until it works,” it said.