Fri, Jul 02, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Servicemen were forcibly taken into Iran: Britain

DPA , LONDON

British government insistence that eight servicemen and their patrol boats seized by Iran last week had not strayed across the border but were "forcibly escorted into Iranian territorial waters" caused waves of protest yesterday.

In a written statement to parliament issued late Wednesday, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said during debriefing the men had insisted they were "operating inside the Iraqi border and were forcibly escorted into Iranian territorial waters".

The opposition Conservative Party demanded that Iran issue a full apology and return the three patrol boats still being held.

Hoon said return of the boats and the retrieval of navigational information in the Global Positioning System equipment aboard would assist the inquiry. The Iranians had failed to meet a deadline set for the return of the three boats, weapons, ammunition, radios and navigational equipment, he said.

"We are very concerned about the blindfolding of the men and have made representations to the government of Iran. We have made it clear that we do not expect a recurrence of this incident," he added in reference to the way the men had been shown on Iranian state-run television.

Two of the men appeared to apologize on Iranian television for the incident.

All eight, six Royal Marines and two Royal Navy sailors, were released last Thursday.

Their detention by the Iranians came close to provoking a major diplomatic incident. British officials appeared to issue a guarded apology last week when they said the men "may have strayed into Iranian waters."

Conservative Defence spokesman Michael Ancram characterized Hoon's statement as "outrageous" and demanded the immediate return of the equipment.

"We were required to apologize for what appeared to have been trespassing into Iranian waters. Our servicemen were paraded blindfolded and humiliated. The equipment still has not been returned. This really does create an extraordinary strain on Iranian-British relations," he told the BBC.

Commentators suggest both governments sought to play down the incident in the hope of avoiding damage to relations between London and Tehran.

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