U.K., Iran have `direct contacts'

Britain proposes direct talks over sailor crisis

Iranian envoy released by captors in Iraq

April 04, 2007|By Laura King and Kim Murphy | Laura King and Kim Murphy,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- An Iranian diplomat seized in Iraq two months ago has been freed, the Iraqi government said yesterday. The envoy was welcomed by senior Iranian officials at the airport in Tehran, the official Iranian news agency IRNA reported.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's office later announced it has held "direct contacts" with Ali Larijani, Iran's chief international negotiator, to help end the diplomatic standoff over 15 British sailors and marines being held for alleged violations of Iran's territorial waters.

"The prime minister believes both sides share a desire for an early resolution of this issue through direct talks," Downing Street said in a statement last night. "The U.K. has proposed direct bilateral discussions and awaits Iranian response on when these can begin."

But Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett earlier cautioned against hope of a speedy resolution to the standoff, which began March 23 when the British military personnel were detained in the northern Persian Gulf.

Britain maintains that the 14 men and one woman were in Iraqi waters; Iran says they entered its territory.

"I would urge you to be cautious in assuming that we are likely to see a swift resolution to this issue," she said in a statement, issued after a briefing with reporters.

During a morning radio show, Blair said the coming 48 hours would be "fairly critical" in determining an end to the crisis.

But Beckett cautioned that the prime minister was not "talking, nor intending to imply, anything about military action. We are not seeking confrontation, we are seeking to pursue this through diplomatic channels."

"There is a huge amount going on behind the scenes," Beckett said in the statement, noting that British diplomats had held eight meetings with Iran's ambassador to London in the past 10 days.

Iranian officials said they were hopeful of a resolution, citing a "change of attitude" on Britain's part that made diplomacy more feasible.

"It depends on Britain's attitude. If they accept that they have trespassed on our borders and guarantee that they will not repeat such aggressions, the issue will be solved through a logical trend. But if Britain continues making hue and cry, the issue will not be solved in the near future," Iranian First Vice President Parviz Davoudi said in remarks carried by the Fars news agency.

Iran, meanwhile, released new photos of 15 Britons.

The images show the service members in civilian clothing, looking relaxed and smiling while eating and playing a game of chess.

The headline accompanying the photos on Fars news agency said, "British Marines Enjoying So-Called Captivity."

It said the troops are "having fruit and coffee, speaking to each other, playing chess and on the whole spending their desirable leisure time in Iran, instead of serving missions in the cumbersome conditions of the Persian Gulf."

The release of the Iraqi diplomat came as President Bush emphasized there should be "no quid pro quos" to end the standoff.

"The seizure of the sailors is indefensible by the Iranians," Bush told reporters in Washington. "I support the Blair government's attempts to solve this issue peacefully, so we're in close consultation with the British government.

"I also strongly support the prime minister's declaration that there should be no quid pro quos when it comes to the hostages," Bush said.

The Iranian diplomat, Jalal Sharafi, was seized Feb. 4 in the central Baghdad neighborhood of Karada.

Armed men in Iraqi uniforms intercepted his vehicle, forced him into a car and sped away.

Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Labeed Abbawi said Sharafi had been freed Monday but gave no other details.

The Associated Press cited a senior Iraqi government official as saying the diplomat had been held by Iraqi intelligence. However, an Iranian official speaking on condition of anonymity accused the United States of complicity in the abduction.

Laura King and Kim Murphy write for the Los Angeles Times.

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