Diplomatic crisis over UK marines held by Iran

Iran’s military said on Saturday that the British naval personnel seized in the Gulf confessed to entering Iranian waters illegally, but Britain maintained they were detained inside Iraqi territory and demanded their release.

”These people are under investigation and have confessed they have violated the waters of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” the ISNA news agency quoted a military official as saying.

The 15 British sailors and marines were seized while searching a merchant ship in the approaches to the Shatt al-Arab waterway that divides Iraq and Iran.

The incident, which drove oil prices to three-month highs, was believed to be the most serious event involving allied forces in Iraq and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards since 2004, when eight British servicemen were captured by Iranian forces and released three days later. No shots were fired and no one was hurt during Friday’s incident.

“We sought a full explanation of what happened and left the Iranian authorities in no doubt that we expect immediate and safe return of our service personnel and boats,” said Margaret Beckett, UK foreign secretary, after Rasoul Movahedian, Iran’s ambassador to London, was summoned to the foreign office. US officials also called for the swift release of the sailors.

The sailors were seized as the United Nations’ Security Council was preparing to vote on a resolution to tighten sanctions against Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons programme.

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad had declared his intention to attend the Security Council session, expected to take place on Saturday. But on Friday night Iranian officials said he was unable to get there in time because US authorities had been late in issuing visas to his air crew. Manouchehr Mottaki, the foreign minister, would try to go instead.

US officials blamed the Iranians for the delay, saying they had filed incomplete applications. “Any suggestion that visa issues are the cause of President Ahmadi-Nejad’s decision not to travel to New York is false,” the US state department said. “Rather, it would appear that he is unwilling to stand before the council and take the heat for his continued defiance of the international community.”

Diplomats were concerned that Iran had seized the British patrol in retaliation for the detention of five Iranian officials by US forces in northern Iraq in January.

“The seizure of the British personnel could be a local incident, it could be opportunistic, or it could be malign,” said one western diplomat. “The Iranians have been...flexing their muscle.”

In Tehran, Iranian state television said Britain’s chargé d’affaires had been summoned to the foreign ministry over what it called the “blatant aggression” of British forces’ “illegal” entry into Iranian waters, which had happened “a couple of times” before.

The UK defence ministry insisted the sailors were on a routine patrol inside Iraqi waters.

Additional reporting from Reuters

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