Iran: British sailors treated humanely
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran said Tuesday the 15 British sailors and marines it detained last week were healthy, have been treated humanely and that the only female sailor among them had been given privacy.
The detentions have increased tensions between Iran and the West, and on Tuesday British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he hoped diplomacy would win their release but was prepared to move to a “different phase” if not.
In Tehran, Mohammad Ali Hosseini, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, insisted the detained Britons had been treated well: “They are in completely good health. Rest assured that they have been treated with humanitarian and moral behavior.”
Hosseini said the 26-year-old female sailor, Faye Turney, had complete privacy. “Definitely, all ethics have been observed,” he said. He would not say where the Britons were being kept.
There were fears in Britain that the fate of the 15 could get caught up in the political tensions between Iran and the West, including the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program and accusations of Iranian help to Shiite militants in Iraq.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Navy began its largest demonstration of force in the Persian Gulf since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with two aircraft carriers and backed by warplanes flying simulated attack maneuvers off the coast of Iran.
U.S. Navy Cmdr. Kevin Aandahl said the U.S. maneuvers were not organized in response to the capture of the British sailors – nor were they meant to threaten the Islamic Republic, whose navy operates in the same waters.
Britain and the United States have said the sailors and marines were intercepted Friday just after they completed a search of a civilian vessel in the Iraqi part of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, where the border between Iran and Iraq has been disputed for centuries.
“I hope we manage to get them to realize they have to release them,” Blair said in an interview with GMTV. “If not, then this will move into a different phase.”
Asked what that meant, Blair replied: “Well, we will just have to see, but what they should understand is that we cannot have a situation where our servicemen and women are seized when actually they are in Iraqi waters under a U.N. mandate.”
Blair’s office said the prime minister was not hinting either at the possible expulsion of Iranian diplomats or military action, but that Britain may have to make public evidence proving the Britons were seized in Iraqi – not Iranian – waters, if there is no swift release of the sailors.
The spokesman said Britain had not made explicit its belief the sailors and marines were in Iraqi territory “because we don’t want to escalate this.”
The standoff helped drive up international oil prices Monday, but they fell Tuesday, reflecting hopes of a peaceful resolution.
Iran has said it is questioning the British sailors and marines to determine if their alleged entry into Iranian waters was “intentional or unintentional” before deciding what to do with them – the first sign it could be seeking a way out of the standoff.
With the border line in dispute, the fate of the 15 Britons may depend on Iran’s interpretation of their intent and whether they strayed across the frontier by accident.
The exact path of the dividing line in the Shatt al-Arab waterway has long been disputed, in part because of shifting sands and mud in the waterway’s extensive delta as it empties into the Persian Gulf.
U.S. officials said the crisis began when British sailors boarded an Indian-flagged commercial ship suspected of carrying smuggled cars through the 125-mile waterway, which the Iranians call the Arvand River.
The ship “turned out to be not what we suspected and it was let go,” Aandahl, the spokesman for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, told The Associated Press by telephone from fleet headquarters in Manama, Bahrain.
Aandahl said the captain of the Indian ship had provided a statement that his vessel was in Iraqi waters at the time it was stopped by the British.
He said U.S. officials knew the GPS coordinates of the ship at the time the incident occurred, but would not release them publicly.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the personnel were seized in Iraqi waters and called for their release.
Iran has refused to allow British officials to speak with the service members. But the official Iranian news agency said Iranian officials have told the British that their diplomats can see the 15 after the investigation is concluded.
There were worries Iran might seek to use the prisoners as leverage in trying to get the U.S. to free at least five Iranians detained in Iraq for allegedly being part of a Revolutionary Guard force.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mehzi Mostafavi denied Iran was seeking a trade, but there were calls from elsewhere within Iran’s leadership for the government to hold out for a swap.
Associated Press writers Jim Krane, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; David Stringer in London; and Carley Petesch in New York contributed to this report.