ROYAL MARINE BASE CHIVENOR, England – Fifteen Royal Navy sailors and marines held captive by Iran returned home Thursday to a nation relieved at their freedom but outraged that they were used for propaganda by Tehran.
Prime Minister Tony Blair called for continued international pressure on Iran, blaming elements of the Iranian government for backing militants in Iraq, where four British soldiers and a translator were slain in an ambush hours before the freed crew touched down.
"On the one hand we are glad that our service personnel return safe and unharmed from their captivity, but on the other we return to the sober and ugly reality of what is happening through terrorism in Iraq," Blair said outside his Downing Street office.
The liberated crew broke open champagne and changed into fresh uniforms on the flight home. After landing at Heathrow airport, they smiled and stood at attention before being whisked by two Sea King helicopters to the Royal Marines base at Chivenor, southwest of London.
They joyfully embraced their tearful families at the base, where they also are expected to be debriefed on their 13 days in captivity.
Hours after their arrival, the BBC reported that one of the British naval crew held in Iran was kept in solitary confinement.
The BBC did not say which of the 15 sailors and marines had been held alone, but said the family of one of the sailors was the source for the information — without identifying the family.
Britain's defense ministry said it could not comment, but confirmed sailors were being debriefed about their 13 days in captivity.
Iran's Foreign Ministry said during the standoff that it had given Faye Turney, the only woman among the crew seized March 23, complete privacy. However, she was seen in photographs with her male colleagues, indicating she had not been placed in solitary confinement.
Though several sailors appeared on Iranian state-run television, others were not filmed — raising the possibility they may have been separated from colleagues.
Several of the crew praised their treatment in Iran in interviews with an Iranian broadcaster, but in a statement released as they arrived in Britain, the sailors said "the past two weeks have been very difficult."
"By staying together as a team we kept our spirits up, drawing great comfort from the knowledge that our loved ones would be waiting for us on our return," the statement read.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup met with the crew briefly and described them as being "happy and in good shape." He dismissed questions that the sailors and marines had behaved improperly because they took part in videos on Iranian state television in which they "admitted" trespassing into Tehran's territorial waters.
"They did exactly as they should have done from start to finish and we are proud of them," he said.
The tabloid Sun newspaper wrote, however, that "nobody emerges from this crisis with credit."
"The sight of the illegally detained British forces thanking Iranian tyrants for their freedom will sicken the nation," the Sun said in an editorial.
Wednesday's announcement by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the Britons had been released was a breakthrough in a crisis that had raised oil prices and escalated fears of military conflict in the volatile region. The move to release the sailors suggested that Iran's hard-line leadership decided it had shown its strength but did not want to push the standoff too far.
Iran did not get the main thing it sought — a public apology for entering Iranian waters. Britain, which said its crew was in Iraqi waters when seized, insists it never offered a quid pro quo, either, instead relying on quiet diplomacy.
But hopes for a decrease in tensions between Britain and Iran diminished after the British military said its soldiers had killed west of Basra in an ambush involving a roadside bomb and small-arms fire, the military said. It was the biggest loss of life for British forces since Nov. 12, when four service members were killed while on patrol in the Shatt Al-Arab waterway near Basra.
"Now it is far too early to say that the particular terrorist act that killed our forces was an act committed by terrorists that were backed by any elements of the Iranian regime," Blair said. "But the general picture, as I said before, is that there are elements at least of the Iranian regime that backing, financing, arming, supporting terrorism in Iraq."
Blair reiterated London's position that no deal had been cut for the captives' release. Speculation on such a deal followed reports by Iranian state media that an Iranian envoy would be allowed to meet five Iranians detained by U.S. forces in northern Iraq. A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said American authorities were considering the request, although an international Red Cross team, including one Iranian, had visited the prisoners.
Another Iranian diplomat, separately seized two months ago by uniformed gunmen in Iraq, was released and returned Tuesday to Tehran. Iran accused the Americans of abducting him, a charge the U.S. denied.
Iran denied a connection between the moves in Iraq and the sailors' and marines' release.
Wednesday's dramatic announcement by Ahmadinejad came halfway through a two-hour news conference, in which the president first gave a medal of honor to the commander of the Iranian coast guards who captured the Britons, and admonished London for sending a mother, Leading Seaman Faye Turney, on such a dangerous mission in the Persian Gulf.
He said the British government was "not brave enough" to admit the crew had been in Iranian waters when it was captured.
Ahmadinejad then declared that even though Iran had the right to put the Britons on trial, he had pardoned them to mark the March 30 birthday of the Prophet Muhammad and the coming Easter holiday.
"This pardon is a gift to the British people," he said.
After the news conference, Iranian television showed a beaming Ahmadinejad on the steps of the presidential palace shaking hands with the Britons — some towering over him. The men were decked out in business suits and Turney wore an Islamic head scarf.
"Your people have been really kind to us, and we appreciate it very much," one of the British men told Ahmadinejad in English. Another male service member said: "We are grateful for your forgiveness."
Ahmadinejad responded in Farsi, "You are welcome."
Three members of the crew were later interviewed on Iranian state-run TV, apologizing for the alleged incursion into Iran's waters and again thanking Ahmadinejad for their release.
"I can understand why you're insulted by the intrusion into the waters," said Lt. Felix Carman, shown seated on a couch.
"Thank you for letting us go and we apologize for our actions, but many thanks for having it in your hearts to let us go free," Turney said.
Before leaving Iran, they received gifts given to them on Ahmadinejad's behalf including handicrafts, a vase and special Persian candy, Iran's state-run news agency, IRNA, reported.
The British crew was seized March 23 as it searched for smugglers. Iran broadcast footage of Turney and some other crew members "confessing" they had entered Iranian waters. An infuriated Britain froze most bilateral contacts, prompting Tehran to roll back on a pledge to free Turney.
During Ahmadinejad's news conference, he said Britain had sent a letter to the Iranian Foreign Ministry pledging that entering Iranian waters "will not happen again." Britain's Foreign Office would not give details about the letter but said its position was clear that the detained crew had been in Iraqi waters.
Syria, Iran's close ally, said it played a role in winning the release.