Iran General NewsEscorted by the US Navy, British sailors return to...

Escorted by the US Navy, British sailors return to the Gulf

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The Independent: Seven months after the Royal Navy suffered one of the most humiliating episodes in its history when 15 sailors and Royal Marines were detained by Iranian forces, British patrols have resumed close to the Iranian border. The Independent

Terri Judd on board HMS Richmond in the Northern [Persian”> Gulf

Seven months after the Royal Navy suffered one of the most humiliating episodes in its history when 15 sailors and Royal Marines were detained by Iranian forces, British patrols have resumed close to the Iranian border.

But now the team is permanently flanked by heavily armoured US Navy gunboats and shadowed by a helicopter. Despite the Royal Navy’s insistence that the capture on 23 March was about “judgement not kit”, the “soft hat” stance of which the British are so proud has been tempered with beefed-up force protection.

The head of UK maritime operations in the Gulf, Commodore Keith Winstanley, says that if the Iranians try it again “the result would be different”.

Commodore Winstanley said: “Not surprisingly, there has been a complete overhaul of procedures, training and equipment,”

At a time of continued tension and talk of a third round of UN sanctions against Iran, both sides still watch each other over the disputed water border. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) in their fast skiffs repeatedly dip into Iraqi waters to taunt the warships protecting the two vital oil platforms on which the country’s fragile economy depend. They are also sending up a small observation plane to skirt the border line daily.

For the first time in 30 years, discussions have begun between the Iranians and Iraqis to establish an agreed border but neither side is yet giving any quarter. British boarding patrols close to the buffer zone ceased almost six months ago.

But last month the team, which patrols in rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIBS), armed with SA80 rifles and side arms, resumed patrols in the more precarious shallow waters. This time, shadowed by two 34ft American gunboats, armed with four 50-calibre heavy machine guns, which are permanently manned, four medium machine guns and their M16 rifles.

The helicopter cover, on duty elsewhere the day the Iraqis surrounded the HMS Cornwall team, stays with them throughout their patrols. The air support, in the understated terms of pilot Lt-Cdr Phil Beacham, encourages the Iranians to be “much less vigorous”.

As the British withdrawal from Basra held the headlines, this often-ignored part of the Iraq operation quietly continued unheeded. Approximately $230m (£109m) of oil is pumped through the Al Basra (Abot) and the Khawr Al Amaya (KAAOT) oil terminals daily, making them the source of 90 per cent of Iraq’s GDP and a prime terrorist target 10km (six miles) from land.

A memorial on KAAOT provides a reminder of the potential human, economic and environmental disaster. On 24 April 2004, an Arab dhow exploded next to USS Firebolt’s boarding team, killing three Americans. Minutes later, two skiffs heading for the Abot terminal were blown up just short of their target. Today, warships from the American, British, Australian and Singaporean navies ensure that no one gets within 3km without being challenged.

But their task is complicated by the number of local fishermen, as well as merchant ships and smugglers that daily breach the exclusion zone. Fishermen in their tiny dhows risk the wrath of 4,000-tonne warships. For the oil terminal guardians, every one is a potential suicide bomber.

When it was captured, the HMS Cornwall team was carrying out the vital counter-terrorism task of gathering information from the waterborne locals and keeping an eye on the craft going up the Shatt al-Arab waterway to Basra.

A damning report by Lt -Gen Sir Rob Fulton, blamed the kidnap on lack of intelligence, poor armament, communications, doctrine and training

Cdr Piers Hurrell, commanding officer of HMS Richmond – which took over from HMS Cornwall in July – said all those issues had been addressed and his crew maintain a balance between being “robust but non-escalatory”.

However, Lt Dan Ridgwell said the newly trained boarding team was frustrated as they were told to leave the contentious boardings to US forces while they perform routine security sweeps of tankers heading towards the oil platforms.

Last week, when two IRGCN fast skiffs were spotted speeding towards the boarding team, one US gunboat blocked their path as the British helicopter dropped low in the sky while the second American craft led the team away. Petty Officer Simon Lay said: “It is easier for us now we have got that kind of back-up.”

The Royal Navy is set for a long-term role in the Gulf.

Commodore Winstanley said: “Long after Iraq is done and dusted and a footnote in Mr Blair’s book, the maritime operation will still be out here. We will be here as long as there is threat, as long as we are welcomed by the Gulf states.”

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