Crisis grows over British sailors seized by Iran

Blair urges release

Iran Web site says 15 may be tried as spies

March 26, 2007|By Tom Hundley | Tom Hundley,Chicago Tribune

LONDON -- Iran's seizure of 15 British sailors and marines three days ago appeared to be spiraling toward a full-blown diplomatic crisis yesterday after Iranians signaled that the captives could be tried for espionage.

Amid reports that the 15 Britons had been taken to Tehran, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported yesterday that Iranian officials were refusing to tell British Ambassador Geoffrey Adams where the captives were being held or to allow him access.

The 15 were seized at gunpoint while conducting routine inspections of cargo ships off the coast of Iraq. Iran says the British sailors had unlawfully strayed into Iranian territorial waters. The commander of the HMS Cornwall, who was in charge of the inspection operation, insists that all of his sailors and vessels were in Iraqi waters.

Yesterday, he was backed up by Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"It is simply not true that they went into Iranian territorial waters, and I hope the Iranian government understands how fundamental an issue this is for us," Blair said.

"They should not be under any doubt at all about how seriously we regard this act, which is unjustified and wrong," Blair said, adding that he wanted the crisis "resolved in as easy and diplomatic a way as possible."

But that opportunity seemed to be slipping away. A Web site associated with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the Britons could be charged with espionage.

The incident comes at a tense time in Western relations with Iran. The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously Saturday to impose stiff new sanctions on Iran in response to Tehran's refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment program.

The U.S. government, which in recent weeks has beefed up its naval presence in the Persian Gulf, has accused Iran's Revolutionary Guards of supplying and supporting Shiite insurgent groups that have been attacking American forces in Iraq.

Five Iranians believed to be associated with the Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force were arrested by U.S. troops in Iraq in January and remain in U.S. custody.

The London-based newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported yesterday in its English-language editions that Iran hopes to exchange the 14 British men and one woman for the five Iranians.

Tom Hundley writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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