Britain freezes ties with Iran amid crisis

Nations differ over capture of 15 sailors

March 29, 2007|By Kim Murphy and Ramin Mostaghim | Kim Murphy and Ramin Mostaghim,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LONDON -- Britain froze all government contacts yesterday with Iran as the Islamic republic came under mounting international and domestic pressure to release 15 British sailors captured in the Persian Gulf.

British officials released detailed maps and coordinates that they say prove that the sailors and marines were operating 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraqi territorial waters, and announced that they would have no ties with Iran except for talks to win the captives' release.

Iran said yesterday that the 15 were arrested three-tenths of a mile inside Iranian waters, underscoring what some experts say is the uncertain nature of the boundary that is at the heart of the dispute. Iranian officials did signal that the one female sailor among the captives, who looked drawn and tense in images shown on Iranian television, would be released soon.

"We are now in a new phase of diplomatic activity," British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett told Parliament. "We will, therefore, be imposing a freeze on all other official bilateral business with Iran until this situation is resolved."

The freeze will include diplomatic contacts, trade missions and the issuance of visas to Iranian government officials, the Foreign Office said.

According to the Associated Press, Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said yesterday that to resolve the standoff, Britain must admit that the sailors and marines entered Iranian waters.

The escalated tensions were highlighted as Iranian TV broadcast footage of the captives, including Leading Seaman Faye Turney, 26, who told an off-camera interviewer that she and her colleagues had trespassed into Iranian waters.

"I am so sorry we did, because I know we wouldn't be here now if we hadn't," Turney said in a handwritten letter to her family that was shown on the broadcast. "I have written a letter to the Iranian people to apologize for entering into their waters. Please don't worry about me. I am staying strong."

The British government immediately protested, calling it "completely unacceptable" for footage of the detained sailors and marines to be shown on television.

"Given the nature of Leading Seaman Faye Turney's statement, in particular the apparent confession that the personnel were `arrested after they trespassed into Iranian waters,' we have grave concerns as to the circumstances under which she made this statement," the Foreign Office said.

The images, on Iran's state Alalam TV, showed the detainees in a small inflatable, apparently during their capture, then cut to them dining. Turney was then shown wearing a black headscarf and smoking a cigarette, red-faced and apparently nervous.

"I am being well looked after. I am fed three meals a day, and have a constant supply of fluids," she said in her letter, which was later released by the Iranian Embassy in London. "The people are friendly and hospitable, very compassionate and warm."

Mottaki backed off a prediction that Turney, could be freed yesterday or today, but said Tehran agreed to allow British officials to meet with service personnel, the AP reported.

The Iranian Embassy in Britain released a statement, apparently seeking to cool the dispute that has sent oil prices soaring and raised fears of a serious confrontation. It emphasized that the incident was not related to the conflict over Iran's nuclear program, or the recent vote by the United Nations Security Council imposing more sanctions against Iran.

"We are of this belief that this legal and technical issue has no link to any other issues and unfounded speculations and excited rhetorics can be counterproductive," the statement said.

Kim Murphy and Ramin Mostaghim write for the Los Angeles Times.

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