Wed, Jun 23, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Conflicting reports on seized sailors

DIPLOMATIC INCIDENT A military source said Teheran would take legal steps against the British navy men but an foreign ministry source said no decision has been made

REUTERS AND AFP , TEHRAN

Iran interrogated eight British sailors but their prosecution for straying into Iranian waters was not discussed, a foreign ministry source said yesterday, as the border incident grew into a serious diplomatic spat.

Iranian state television showed video footage of the group of Royal Navy personnel in blindfolds in a cramped room yesterday and quoted a military source as saying the group would be put on trial "for illegally entering Iranian territorial waters."

The British government summoned Iran's ambassador to London yesterday and called for the men's release.

Adding to British frustrations, Iran also appeared to be denying British diplomats immediate access to the team -- arrested by Iran's Revolutionary Guards on Monday along the Shatt al-Arab waterway that demarcates the southern border between Iran and Iraq.

"We are still trying to get access," a spokesman at the embassy, Andrew Dunn, told reporters. "We do not know where they are being held."

"The ambassador was asked why the eight are being held, for their release as soon possible and for full consular access to them meanwhile," a British Foreign Office spokesman said.

Iranian Revolutionary Guards arrested the Britons on Monday on the Shatt al-Arab waterway which marks the southern stretch of Iraq's border with Iran.

Britain said the group were training Iraqi police and were on a routine mission delivering a boat to an Iraqi river patrol.

"Interrogations to find out the reason those people entered Iran's waters are going on, and no other issue is under discussion now," the Iranian ministry source said, contradicting a state television report that the men would be prosecuted.

The sailors could be released soon if investigations show their incursion was not ill-intended, a senior Iranian military official was quoted as saying yesterday.

"If the result of the interrogations of those British military men shows that they didn't have any bad intention, they will be released soon," Ali Reza Afshar, deputy head of the armed forces chief of staff, told the ISNA students news agency.

But earlier yesterday an unnamed Revolutionary Guards official told the semi-official Fars news agency the Britons were carrying sophisticated maps and arms and said they would be tried.

He said the eight had confessed to "deliberately" entering Iran's territorial waters.

"They were fully armed. Besides their personal arms, they were equipped with advanced rifles, night vision systems and other type of equipment," the official said.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's spokesman said: "We want to resolve this situation as quickly as possible ... We have asked for full details and access to them."

Political analysts said that while Iran's reform-minded government may be keen to solve the issue quickly through diplomatic channels, hardline bodies such as the Revolutionary Guards may want to take a tougher line.

"The government policy is one of tolerance, but some groups are pursuing an isolated stance," said a senior Iranian political source.

Ali Ansari, Middle East expert at University of Exeter, pointed out that Britain, unlike the US, has tried to engage with Iran's leaders in recent years.

"I think there'll be a couple of high-level contacts ... There'll be a bit of diplomatic toing-and-froing, then they'll be released ... in a matter of days," he said.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top