British Officials Who Allowed Service Members to Sell Stories Safe From Dismissal

Prime Minister Tony Blair will not fire government officials who allowed British service members held captive in Iran to sell their stories to the media, Blair's office said Friday, saying he will not engage "in a witch hunt."

Responding to a petition calling for the "naming and sacking" of those responsible for the decision, 10 Downing St. said it believed the decision had been taken "honorably and in difficult circumstances."

A statement posted on the Downing Street Web site said: "The prime minister has already made it clear that he recognizes that the navy were trying to deal with a wholly exceptional situation.

"He has no intention of engaging in a witch hunt against people who acted honorably and in good faith in very difficult circumstances."

The 15 sailors were searching a merchant ship in the Persian Gulf on March 23 when they were intercepted by Iranian vessels. Iran claimed the Britons had strayed into its territorial waters, a charge Britain denied.

The sailors were freed last week by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Two detainees -- Faye Turney and Arthur Batchelor -- struck deals with newspapers that have published their accounts this week. Turney also appeared in a TV interview.

The decision to open a free market in the detainees' accounts was criticized by opposition politicians and retired military commanders, as well as by relatives of British service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 10 Downing St. comment appeared to be an effort to reduce pressure on Defense Secretary Des Browne, who has accepted "full responsibility" for the captives originally being allowed to profit from their ordeal in Iran.

On Monday, Browne said the government was temporarily barring all military service members from talking to media for payment, while the government reviews the regulations regarding such decisions.

Blair previously had distanced himself from the controversy, saying the decision was not a "good idea" and insisting he had not been aware of it until it was finalized.

Browne is expected to be criticized by governing Labour Party lawmakers and the opposition when he makes a statement Monday to the House of Commons.

The petition has garnered more than 2,800 signatures since it was posted on the Downing Street Web site Thursday morning.

It says: "We the undersigned petition the prime minister to name and sack the person responsible for declaring that members of the armed services can sell their stories to the media."