Fri, Apr 06, 2007 - Page 1 News List

Detained Britons back in England

CRISIS OVER Tony Blair was adamant that the release of the 15 was secured without any deal, while Iranian newspapers claimed victory for Tehran

AGENCIES , LONDON AND TEHRAN

Faye Turney and Andrew Henderson, two of the 15 British sailors and marines held by Iran for nearly two weeks, are all smiles as they pose for pictures upon their arrival at Heathrow Airport, London, yesterday after a British Airways flight from Tehran.

PHOTO: EPA

British Prime Minister Tony Blair denied yesterday that any deals had been done to secure the return of 15 detainees from Iran, but questions remained over exactly how they were freed.

Speculation centered on the release on Tuesday of an Iranian diplomat kidnapped two months ago in Baghdad, and the reported promise this week of consular access to five Iranian officials seized by US forces in Iraq in January.

But as the sailors and marines arrived back in Britain, some commentators said the unexpected announcement of their release by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday was the result of classic, quiet diplomacy.

British newspapers said for all the positioning, it was direct talks on Tuesday between Blair's chief foreign policy adviser Nigel Sheinwald and top Iranian security official Ali Larijani that broke the deadlock.

"The best lesson to take away from this affair was how rapidly it was resolved once empowered officials on both sides talked directly," the Financial Times said.

NO DEALS

Blair, speaking at the exact moment the detainees touched down at London's Heathrow airport, was adamant their release had been secured "without any deal, without any negotiation, without any side agreement of any nature whatever."

"There are no agreements about any Iranian elements that may be held in Iraq because they are being held in Iraq as a result of the wrongful interference in the business of Iraq," he said.

Blair can justifiably claim a victory. His primary objective, the safe return of the Royal Navy personnel, has been achieved. He has not been forced into publicly apologizing, and Britain's version of events has not been convincingly proven false by Iran.

Throughout the crisis, Blair reiterated that Iran had nothing to gain from keeping the sailors detained. But Ahmedinejad scored a propaganda coup by his announcement on Wednesday that the sailors would be freed as a "gift," though Blair insisted nobody would be "taken in" by such "theater."

TV footage showed the smiling sailors, clad in new suits, thanking the president for their release and Iran's hospitality.

The 15 sailors and marines finally had a chance to escape the media spotlight on their flight home yesterday on board the British Airways flight from Tehran.

FLIGHT HOME

They were sectioned off in business class for the six-hour journey. Passengers booked at the front of the plane were relegated to economy. The only glimpse was the back of their heads when the curtains were briefly opened to allow cabin crew to pass through.

In a bid to shelter the captives from eager cameras, the crew took to crawling under a partition.

For Iranians travelling to London, including those deprived of their business class seats, the mood was one of relief that the crisis had not escalated further.

"I am very happy that they are going back. Nobody wants to be away from their family and friends. I always worry about some kind of misunderstanding between regimes," said Hooman Ghavimi, a 65-year-old on a business trip to London.

TEHRAN REACTS

Meanwhile, Iranian papers wrote with glee yesterday about the release of the Britons.

The conservative Resalat called the whole affair "a slap in the face" for "those countries that think they can violate Iran's territory."

The pro-reform Etemad-e Melli welcomed the sailors' release but said Ahmadinejad's announcement was "immature."

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