Wed, Apr 04, 2007 - Page 1 News List

Blair says hostage dispute with Iran at critical stage

AFP , LONDON

British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned Iran yesterday that his government would have to take increasingly tough decisions if 15 captive sailors are not quickly released.

Blair also said the next 48 hours could be crucial in the 12 day old crisis, which Iranian Vice President Parviz Davoudi said could be resolved if Britain admitted the naval personnel had illegally entered Iranian waters.

The prime minister said Britain has had "two very clear tracks" throughout the 12-day crisis, which has further strained relations between Iran and the West.

"One is to try and settle this by way of peaceful, calm negotiation, get our people back as quickly as possible ... The other is to make it clear that if that's not possible, then we have to take increasingly tougher decisions," he said.

In Tehran, senior officials appeared to be taking a more conciliatory tone over the 14 men and one woman who were seized in the northern Gulf on March 23 accused of trespassing into Iranian waters.

"London has changed its attitude for several days now and is acting on the basis of negotiations," Davoudi told reporters in the southern city of Bushehr where he was opening a new installation at Iran's first nuclear power station.

"London must give guarantees and say that there was a violation and there will be no other errors in the future. I think that the problem heading in this direction and God willing will be resolved soon," he said.

Ali Larijani, Iran's top national security official, also said new talks had started with Britain for resolving the crisis, which he described as the first step toward finding a solution.

"The British government has started diplomatic discussions with the foreign ministry to resolve the issue of the British military personnel," Larijani told state TV's central news agency.

"It is at the beginning of the path. If they continue on this path then logically conditions can change and we can go towards ending this issue," he said.

Larijani also gave a rare interview to British TV in an apparent attempt to cool the boiling controversy over the capture of the 15 marines and sailors.

He told Britain's Channel Four TV there was "no need" to put the group on trial, describing the stand-off as "quite resolvable."

British Ambassador Geoffrey Adams was to meet Iranian foreign ministry officials yesterday.

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