Fri, Jun 25, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Iran hands over British troops

SAFE AND SOUND After having suffered through some anxious moments, Britons were relieved to find out that eight of their country's servicemen were heading home

AP , LONDON

A TV grab taken from the Iranian state-run al-Alam TV station shows British troops marching blindfold on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab waterway where they were detained on Monday.

PHOTO: AP

Eight British troops held by Iran have been freed after three days of detention and are in the custody of British diplomats, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said yesterday.

The six Royal Marines and two British sailors, detained Monday after their boats apparently strayed into the Iranian side of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which runs along the Iran-Iraq border, were on their way to Tehran with British consular officials, Straw said.

"I'm obviously very pleased indeed," he said in a brief statement outside Prime Minister Tony Blair's office.

"I'm told that they are in very good spirits and were well cared for," he said.

He said British consular officials were flying with the servicemen from the area of southwestern Iran where they had been held to the capital, where he said they would be taken to the British Embassy. He did not specify where they would then go.

"It's the news we've been waiting for, we're absolutely delighted," said Graham Reid, of Aberdeenshire in Scotland, whose son, Royal Marine David Reid, was among the detainees.

"There were some dark moments over the last few days, especially when we saw them on TV blindfolded, but this is brilliant.

"Hopefully we'll see him either late tonight or early tomorrow, I can't wait to just see him and give him a hug," the elder Reid said.

tensions

The capture of the servicemen had fueled tensions between the two countries, but Straw said he remained convinced that Britain's policy of engaging with Iran was wise.

"We have diplomatic relations with Iran, we work hard on those relationships and sometimes the relationships are complicated but I'm in no doubt at all that our policy of engagement with the government of Iran ... is the best approach," he said.

He praised the efforts of his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharrazi, and said that while he would have preferred the soldiers to have been released more quickly, he was pleased they were now free.

"These things do sometimes take time," Straw said.

He added that Britain and Iran were still discussing the possible return of the sailors' equipment and boats.

Iran had initially said it would prosecute the troops for illegally entering its territory. Concern in Britain ran high after Iran's Arabic language Al-Alam television showed the sailors blindfolded and sitting cross-legged on the ground.

But telephone conversations between Straw and Kharrazi and constant dialogue between British and Iranian officials appeared to ease the situation.

Iran softened its position, saying the servicemen would be freed if interrogations proved they had "no bad intention."

The Ministry of Defense said that the personnel were from the Royal Navy training team based in southern Iraq and were delivering a boat from Umm Qasr to Basra, Iraq when they were captured

The Foreign Office had said earlier that three British diplomats were traveling from Tehran to Abadan, a port on the Shatt al-Arab and 90km west of Mah Shahr, to receive the eight servicemen.

Britain and Iran had given conflicting reports Wednesday of the captives' status, with Iran saying they had been freed and the British Foreign Office rebutting that claim.

Strains between the two nations rose last week when Britain helped draft an International Atomic Energy Agency resolution rebuking Iran for past nuclear cover-ups.

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