Iran May Free Detained Britons

Published June 22, 2004

| Associated Press

Iran said Tuesday it could soon free eight British sailors seized a day earlier along the border with Iraq if interrogations show they had "no bad intention," the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

The comments by Gen. Ali Reza Afshar (search), an Iranian armed forces spokesman, suggested a softening of earlier statements that the sailors would be prosecuted.

Iranian television at first showed the sailors blindfolded and seated cross-legged on the ground. Two of the sailors were later shown on state-run television Tuesday night, reading a statement of apology for entering Iran's territorial waters and saying it was a mistake.

"My name is Sgt. Thomas Harkins from the British Royal Marines (search). I do apologize for entering Iranian territorial waters," one of the men said.

The men were standing next to a river. The broadcast, on Iran's Arabic-language Al-Alam television, also showed the three British military patrol boats and weapons it said had been confiscated from the sailors.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman said British officials would remind Iran of its obligations under international law.

"We will continue to underline to the Iranian government that we expect the people involved to be treated under the relevant international criteria," the spokesman said on condition of anonymity.

The Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Afshar as saying, "If the outcome of the interrogations of the British military men shows that they had no bad intention, they will be released soon."

The sailors were detained Monday in the Shatt-al-Arab waterway (search) and accused of illegally entering Iran's territorial waters as they were delivering a patrol boat for the new Iraqi river patrol service.

The Shatt-al-Arab, known as the Arvand River in Iran, is the Tigris and Euphrates rivers' outlet to the Persian Gulf and forms the southernmost part of the Iran-Iraq border.

Earlier Tuesday, Al-Alam television said the sailors would be prosecuted "for illegally entering Iranian territorial waters."

It said the vessels were 1,000 yards inside Iranian territory.

"The crew have also confessed to having entered Iranian waters," the broadcast said. It added the sailors were carrying maps and weapons.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (search) telephoned his Iranian counterpart Kamal Kharrazi (search) on Tuesday to ask for the sailors' release.

A Foreign Office official said: "We are very concerned by the pictures and we are raising it with the Iranians at the appropriate level."

Later, the British government summoned the Iranian ambassador in London, Morteza Sarmadi, demanding an explanation for the arrests of the sailors, who were on what the Foreign Office called a "routine mission."

A British official said Sarmadi had offered no immediate clarification. "It was a one way conversation, an opportunity for us to put our concerns across and for him to listen," he said, on condition of anonymity.

The waterway, Iraq's main link with the Persian Gulf that divides Iran and Iraq, has long been a source of tension between the neighbors. The 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war broke out after Saddam Hussein claimed the entire waterway.

The British Defense Ministry said the sailors may have inadvertently strayed into Iranian waters.

"There is obviously some likelihood that they did find themselves on the wrong side of a very much historically disputed border," said a Defense Ministry spokesman, adding that Monday's weather had been bad. He spoke on customary condition of anonymity.

The Defense Ministry said the personnel were from the Royal Navy training team based in southern Iraq. They were delivering a boat from Umm Qasr to Basra, Iraq.

In other state TV broadcasts on Tuesday, the sailors were shown sitting silently on chairs and a sofa. Three were in British military uniform; five others wore military trousers and civilian T-shirts.

British-Iranian relations have run warm and cold for years. The detentions follow a fresh strain after London helped draft a resolution rebuking Iran for past nuclear cover-ups at last week's meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (search) board of governors.

Iran says its program is aimed only at producing energy, while the United States accuses Tehran of trying to develop nuclear weapons. Iran accused Britain, which it had seen as a partner in the investigation into its nuclear activities, of caving in to U.S. pressure.

Iranians repeatedly demonstrated in front of the British Embassy in Tehran last month, throwing stones at the building to protest the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. Britain is America's main coalition partner in Iraq.

Protesters also condemned war damage to Shiite holy shrines in Iraq, demanded the expulsion of the British ambassador to Tehran and called for the embassy to be closed.

British-Iranian ties were strained in 1989 when the founder of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (search), issued a fatwa, or religious edict, against British author Salman Rushdie (search). In 1998, the Iranian government declared it would not support the fatwa and the two countries exchanged ambassadors in 1999.

In 2002, Iran rejected a British candidate for ambassador, claiming he was a Jewish spy. A year later, shots were fired at the British Embassy in Tehran, after Britain briefly held an Iranian diplomat accused of helping to mastermind the car bombing of a Jewish center in Argentina.

Iran has expressed pleasure over Saddam's toppling, but it has strongly opposed deployment of U.S.-led coalition forces on its borders, citing security concerns.

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