LONDON – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted Saturday that 15 captured British sailors trespassed in Iranian waters and called world powers "arrogant" for failing to apologize, the country's official news agency reported.
"Instead of apologizing over trespassing by British forces, the world arrogant powers issue statements and deliver speeches," IRNA quoted Ahmadinejad as saying during a speech in the southeastern city of Andinmeshk.
"The British occupier forces did trespass our waters. Our border guards detained them with skill and bravery. But arrogant powers, because of their arrogant and selfish spirit, are claiming otherwise," the hard-line leader told the crowd who was celebrating the Persian New Year holiday, IRNA said.
Britain insists that the service members were in Iraqi waters of the Persian Gulf when they were seized by naval units of the Revolutionary Guards on March 23. Iran maintains the Britons were in Iranian waters and violated International law.
Ahmadinejad comments Saturday were not his first about the incident. On Thursday, he accused Britain of trying to solve the crisis through propaganda and not diplomacy, state TV reported.
Also Saturday, IRNA reported that Iran's ambassador to Russia said the case has entered a legal phase but denied that he said the sailors could be put on trial.
Gholam-Reza Ansari made his comments to Russian television Vesti-24 on Friday and was quoted by IRNA on its Web site as saying, "the case of the detention of British sailors has taken on a judicial form."
IRNA originally quoted the ambassador Saturday morning as saying the sailors could be "tried if there is enough evidence of guilt." But the agency published a correction later claiming Ansari's comments were incorrectly translated by Russian television. The Russian TV station could not immediately be reached for comment.
Asked about Ansari's remarks earlier Saturday before IRNA reported that he was misquoted, British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett expressed worry and urged Iran to resolve the crisis peacefully.
"I'm concerned ... it's not the first person who made saber-rattling comments," she said. "We continue to express our willingness to engage in dialogue and discussions with Iran."
Britain's Foreign Office said the ambassador's comments didn't alter their view of what was needed to resolve the standoff.
"This doesn't change our position, we have made it perfectly clear that our personnel were in Iraqi waters and we continue to request immediate consular access to them and their immediate release," said a spokeswoman for Britain's Foreign Office, speaking on customary condition of anonymity in line with government rules.
Ansari is not the first Iranian official to reference potential legal repercussions for the British sailors. Ali Larijani, Iran's chief international negotiator, said on state radio Thursday, "this case may face a legal path."
On Thursday, Ahmadinejad also told Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip that the case had entered a legal investigation phase, state television reported.
In his comments Saturday, Ansari reiterated Iran's stance that the British government could resolve the crisis by admitting the sailors entered Iranian waters.
"If the UK government admits its mistake and apologizes to Iran for its naval personnel's trespassing of Iranian territorial waters, the issue can be easily settled," he said.
The diplomat said British troops were perceived as "occupation forces" in the region and claimed the British government had escalated the crisis by taking the matter to the U.N. Security Council rather than resolving it on a bilateral basis.
Britain has frozen most contacts with Iran and referred the issue to the Security Council, which expressed "grave concern" on Thursday over Iran's seizure last week of the Britons.
Former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami told reporters on Saturday that he hopes the current standoff will be resolved peacefully "instead of facing a new disaster not only for Iranian-British relations, but for Iran internationally."
The Iranian embassy also delivered a letter to the Britain's Foreign Office Thursday that asked the government to acknowledge its sailors had trespassed into Iranian waters and confirm it would not happen again.
The Foreign Office spokeswoman confirmed Saturday that Britain had replied to the letter, but declined to reveal the nature of the response.
Iranian state TV said late Saturday that Iran has received Britain's written response .
"There are various points in the British response that could be reviewed," the broadcast quoted Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini as saying. It did not elaborate.
Iran appears intent on sending a message of strength as it faces mounting U.N. sanctions over its uranium enrichment program, which the U.S. and other nations suspect the Islamic Republic is using to develop nuclear weapons.
On Friday, a captive Royal Marine was shown in new TV footage apologizing for being in Iranian waters, and Tehran made public a third letter supposedly written by the only woman prisoner among 15 Britons seized by Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Faye Turney.
Britain sharply denounced Iran over the treatment of the captives — a clear sign both sides were hardening their stance as the crisis entered its second week.