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UK Sailors taken hostage by Iranian Forces
Iran 'seizes' 15 British sailors
POSTED: 11:02 a.m. EDT, March 23, 2007
• 15 British sailors on patrol in the Persian Gulf "seized" by Iranian navy
• Personnel were carrying out "routine" boarding of a vessel when apprehended
• UK government demands immediate and safe return of the sailors
LONDON, England (CNN) -- An Iranian naval patrol seized 15 British marines and sailors who had boarded a vessel suspected of smuggling cars off the coast of Iraq, military officials said.
The British government immediately demanded the safe return of its troops and summoned Tehran's London ambassador to explain the incident.
The Royal Marines and ordinary naval officers were believed to have been apprehended by up to six ships from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy who claimed they had violated Iranian waters.
British naval officials said the sailors, using small boarding craft, had completed an inspection of a merchant vessel in Iraqi waters when the Iranians arrived.
Commodore Nick Lambert, commander of the HMS Cornwall -- the frigate from which the British patrol had been deployed -- said the incident did not involve fighting or use of weapons.
"We've been assured from the scant communications that we've had from the Iranians at the tactical level that the 15 people are safely in their hands," he said.
The British defense ministry said that it was pursuing the incident "at the highest level."
There was no immediate comment from Iranian officials.
Lambert said the British sailors had been on a "normal, routine boarding" of a vessel that had aroused suspicions as it navigated the Shatt al-Arab, a disputed waterway that marks the border between Iraq and Iran on the shores of the Persian Gulf. (Location map)
British military patrols have been given authority to board vessels in Iraqi waters under United Nations mandate and with the permission of the government in Baghdad.
He said the captain of the merchant vessel had been cleared to proceed and the two British inflatable patrol boats were readying for departure when they were surrounded by the Iranian navy and taken into Iranian waters.
Lambert said there is "absolutely no doubt in my mind" that the marines were in Iraqi waters. But, he said, "The extent and the definition of territorial waters in this part of the world is very complicated... We may well find, and I hope we find, that this is a simple misunderstanding at a tactical level," he said.
"There hopefully has been a mistake that's been made, and we'll see early clarification and early release of my people."
Lambert added that the marines were doing critical work, "protecting the oil platforms to ensure the economic future of Iraq."
He described the Iranian navy as "a multi-headed organization" that generally stays within its territory doing its business, "and we stay inside Iraqi territory doing our business."
The British defense ministry said: "We are urgently pursuing this matter with the Iranian authorities at the highest level and on the instructions of the Foreign Secretary, the Iranian ambassador has been summoned to the Foreign Office.
"The British government is demanding the immediate and safe return of our people and equipment."
CNN's Aneesh Raman in Tehran said there had been no mention of the incident on Iranian TV and calls to officials had not been answered.
It was not immediately clear where in Iran the British personnel were taken.
There was a previous similar incident in 2004, when Iran stopped three British boats and seized eight sailors and six marines.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry said at the time the three boats had crossed into Iran's territorial waters. The detained servicemen appeared on Iranian television blindfolded. They were released after Iran said it determined they had mistakenly crossed into Iran's waters. (Full story).
Britain, the United States' main ally in Iraq, has a large military presence in southern Iraq, based out of the Shatt al-Arab port of Basra. A senior British Army officer on Friday accused Iranian agents of paying Iraqi militia to carry out attacks on coalition forces around Basra.
UK sailors' release set for Thursday
Wednesday, June 23, 2004 Posted: 4:08 PM EDT (2008 GMT)
Iranian foreign minister announces that the eight Britons will be freed. CNN's Matthew Chance reports. (June 23)
TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- Iranian authorities are expected to release eight British sailors and Marines Thursday morning, the British Foreign Office said Wednesday.
Iran's state news agency IRNA had reported that the six Marines and two sailors would be freed Wednesday, but Foreign Office officials told CNN that the arrangements were made too late in the day for the release to occur.
IRNA said Iranian officials had concluded that the eight crossed Monday into Iranian territorial waters aboard three patrol boats by mistake.
A British Foreign Office spokesman said a delegation of diplomats has arrived in southwestern Iran to take custody of the detainees after their release. Britain wants to resolve the situation as soon as possible, he said.
Iran began making plans to free the sailors after it was convinced they crossed into an off-limits section of the Persian Gulf by mistake, Iran's state-run news agency IRNA said.
IRNA quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi as saying: "It became clear for us that the detained British military men had no ill-intention, and they will be released on Wednesday."
Britain's Foreign Office confirmed that Iran had officially notified London of the imminent release.
The British diplomats landed in Khuzestan in southwest Iran from the capital Tehran and were headed to Bandar Mahshahr, a petrochemical center, Reuters reported.
"We have just landed in Ahvaz," Reuters quoted a diplomat as saying from the provincial capital of Khuzestan, the oil-rich province on the Iraqi border.
The detained servicemen appeared on Iranian television Tuesday night, all of them blindfolded.
Another video showed two of the men standing by the waterway, identifying themselves as Thomas Hawkins, a Marine, and Chief Petty Officer Robert Webster of the Royal Navy. In the video, Hawkins apologizes.
Iranian media had reported Tuesday that Tehran was threatening to prosecute the eight Britons.
The British Ministry of Defense said the eight personnel, based in southern Iraq, were detained by Iran while delivering a boat from Umm Qasr to Basra.
The team members were traveling in three boats -- two Boston Whalers and one British Army Combat Support Boat, the ministry said in a written statement.
The boats were unarmed but the crews were carrying their personal weapons, the statement said.
Iranian media Tuesday reported that the British boats had entered Iran's territorial waters illegally and had gotten too close to an oil jetty near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
CNN stringer Shirzad Bozorgmehr and Correspondent Matthew Chance contributed to this report