AFP: Britain’s Defence Secretary Des Browne, facing calls for his resignation, apologised in parliament Monday for a decision to allow 15 sailors captured by Iran to sell their stories. by Phil Hazlewood
LONDON, April 16, 2007 (AFP) – Britain’s Defence Secretary Des Browne, facing calls for his resignation, apologised in parliament Monday for a decision to allow 15 sailors captured by Iran to sell their stories.
Five times, Browne accepted full responsibility in front of members of parliament for allowing the naval personnel to sell their accounts to the press, which critics say has sullied the image and integrity of Britain’s armed forces.
Browne acknowledged that he should not have approved a Royal Navy request on April 5 — the day the group returned to Britain — for them to be paid for interviews.
“I made a mistake. I have been completely open about that and to the extent that what happened … has caused people to question the hard-won reputation of the armed forces, that is something I profoundly regret,” he said.
“But I remind people that precisely because this reputation is hard won, it is not easily undermined.”
Faye Turney, the only female detainee, reportedly received around 100,000 pounds (147,000 euros, 196,000 dollars) for interviews with The Sun tabloid, and commercial broadcaster ITV.
The row has caused disquiet among the governing Labour Party ranks and the armed forces, while the leader of the main opposition Conservative Party, David Cameron, said Browne needs to justify his handling of the affair or quit.
Browne gave a full explanation of events leading up to the group’s seizure on March 12, diplomatic efforts to release them and the handling of what he said was the “intense” media interest in their stories.
Two separate reviews are being carried out, one on the group’s capture and another on the defence ministry’s handling of the media. The first is expected to take about six weeks, he added.
“As we go through this process, we should remember the most important thing in this is that we got our people back safe and on our terms,” he said.
Iran seized the eight Royal Navy sailors and seven Royal Marines in the northern Gulf on March 23, alleging they had entered the country’s territorial waters illegally — Britain insists they were in Iraqi waters carrying out a routine anti-smuggling operation under a UN mandate.
Some of the group were shown on Iranian television making confessions about their “mistake”. They were released two weeks later in what Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said was an Easter “gift” to Britain.
But after their return, two of the group — the only woman, Leading Seaman Faye Turney, and Operator Maintainer Arthur Batchelor, the youngest of the group — sold their stories to newspapers and a television outlet. Turney received a reported six-figure sum.
The furor that followed provoked criticism from relatives of British soldiers killed in Iraq, politicians and military figures.
The opposition Conservative Party’s defence spokesman Liam Fox told parliament he thought Browne’s position had become “untenable” because his decisions did not command confidence.
Home Secretary John Reid has acknowledged that Browne’s job was “on the line” and Prime Minister Tony Blair has said the decision was “not a good idea”.
But commentators say Browne is likely to survive, if only because Blair is in the last weeks of his premiership and is unlikely to want to reorganise senior ministerial posts.
Browne also went into the Commons debate with the full backing of all the country’s defence chiefs, Blair’s official spokesman said earlier.