Detained sailors must be released, Blair warns Iran

Britain will move to `different phase' if 15 who were seized are held, he says

March 28, 2007|By Kim Murphy | Kim Murphy,Los Angeles Times

LONDON -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned yesterday that Britain is prepared to move to "a different phase" if Iran does not quickly release 15 British sailors being held for an alleged incursion into Iranian waterways.

As Iran announced that it had begun to interrogate the detainees, Britain was considering stepping up its efforts to gain their release, diplomats said, because of growing concerns that quiet diplomacy has proved fruitless.

"What we are trying to do at the moment is to pursue this through the diplomatic channels and make the Iranian government understand these people have to be released and that there is absolutely no justification for holding them," Blair said.

"I hope we manage to get them to realize that they have to release them. If not, then this will move into a different phase."

Blair did not say what he meant by a "different phase."

"We'll have to see, but what they should understand is that we cannot have a situation where our servicemen and women are seized, when actually they are in Iraqi waters under a U.N. mandate, and then effectively captured and taken to Iran."

The prime minister was not referring to possible military action or an expulsion of diplomats, a British government spokesman said, but rather to a more public confrontation with Iran.

British officials are considering the public release of evidence that Britain believes is proof that the small British patrol boat captured Friday in the Shatt al-Arab waterway was operating in Iraqi waters, not Iranian waters, the spokesman said.

Patience `thin'

"Patience is now wearing thin. We've had four days now since British servicemen who were doing nothing wrong have been lifted, and we still don't have any idea where they are," said the spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The Iranians have been pretty unreasonable about this. We will probably be upping the ante a bit in terms of what we're saying."

Iran contends that the British patrol boat entered Iranian territory illegally and has said it is trying to determine whether the vessel's entry into the disputed area was intentional or unintentional.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told the Associated Press that the detainees are in good condition and are being treated well.

"They are in completely good health. Rest assured that they have been treated with humanitarian and moral behavior," Hosseini said.

He said the privacy of the lone woman in the group, Leading Seaman Faye Turney, 26, the mother of a 3-year-old daughter, is being protected. "Definitely, all ethics have been observed," he said.

Turney's husband is also a seaman, according to British news reports.

Envoy summoned

Iran's ambassador has been summoned for consultations to the British Foreign Office three times since the arrest, and Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett has lodged an appeal with her Iranian counterpart for information about the whereabouts of the detainees. She also has sought permission for a consular official to visit them, with no results.

In Turkey, Beckett said she was "glad to hear" the Iranian government's assurances about the welfare of the detainees.

"But first, of course, we continue to call not just for their safe, but for their speedy return, and second, we continue to seek consular access to them for our diplomats," she said. "If indeed they are, as is said, being detained in reasonable circumstances, then we can see no reason why they should not have contact with people from the British government, so that they can be reassured."

Liberal Democratic Party leader Menzies Campbell said Monday that Britain "will not be blackmailed" by Iran. "Iran has a choice to act responsibly or face greater isolation," he said.

Dan Plesch, an Iran expert at the Center for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London, said Iran is probably in a state of heightened sensitivity about border incursions because of recent troubles along its borders with Pakistan, Kurdistan and Azerbaijan, which Iran believes have been fomented in part by the United States and Britain.

Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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