Freed British sailors given warm welcome

But some critics raise questions about crew's confessions in Iran

April 06, 2007|By Kim Murphy | Kim Murphy,LOS ANGELES TIMES

London -- A joyous reception for 15 British sailors and marines freed from Iran quickly turned to hard questioning yesterday about the British military's handling of the event and the ready confessions the Britons offered to their Iranian captors.

The 14 men and one woman had scarcely settled down at a marine base in Devon when politicians began calling for inquiries into how the crews of two small patrol boats had found themselves lightly armed, without escort and far from their ship in disputed waters in the Persian Gulf.

Some commentators said the captured crew members must explain the easygoing demeanor with which they admitted to entering Iranian waters and made public, televised apologies after their detention March 23 by Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

"I think there certainly will need to be an investigation, from the military point of view, as to how the Revolutionary Guards managed to sneak up on them without anybody noticing. And I've got no idea what the answer is going to be," said Phyllis Starkey, a Labor member of Parliament.

Prime Minister Tony Blair credited calm diplomacy with gaining the release of the detainees, and said Britons were "sufficiently intelligent" not to be taken in by "the theater" of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's announcement of a pardon.

"It is correct that over the past couple of weeks there have been new and interesting lines of communication opened up with the Iranian regime, and it's sensible for us to continue to pursue those," Blair said. "However, the international community has got to remain absolutely steadfast in enforcing its will, whether it is in respect of nuclear weapons or in respect of the support of any part of the Iranian regime for terrorism."

Leading Seaman Faye Turney gave a hint of the group's unease about the reception they would receive in an interview with Iranian television before the crew left Tehran's international airport.

"Not many of us slept last night, because we weren't sure what the reaction will be back home," she said.

The public reception has been overwhelmingly warm and celebratory, and senior military officials have stood solidly behind the crew members, declaring that they had followed military procedures.

"They did exactly as they should have done from start to finish in this entire incident, and we're extremely proud of them," Air Chief Marshal Jock Stirrup, chief of the defense staff, told the British Broadcasting Corp.

"You've only got to look at them, you've only got to listen to what they say, to be able to draw your own conclusions," he said of their purported confessions to straying into Iranian waters.

"Nobody can be judged for what they say under duress," said Bernard Jenkin, a Conservative member of Parliament. "They will have resisted giving any sensitive or classified information they may have had, but beyond that, you can't expect service personnel to risk life and limb, when we know that anything they say for public consumption is likely to be contrived anyway, so what weight does it really carry?"

But some commentators and defense analysts were less generous toward the sailors and the military command behind them.

"The Royal Navy has some questions to answer," said Charles Heyman, a former defense studies lecturer at the Royal Air Force College who also served as a British army general staff officer. "Why did that boarding party not have proper air cover? Why did they board the [searched] ship on the blind side? I don't think that crew was properly trained."

Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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