Iran gives "gift" of freedom to 15 British sailors, marines
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defused a growing confrontation with Britain on Wednesday, with a surprise announcement...
Seattle Times news services
LONDON — In what he called a "gift," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defused a growing confrontation with Britain on Wednesday, with a surprise announcement that Iran would free 15 British sailors and marines taken captive 13 days ago for allegedly trespassing into Iran's coastal waters.
Ahmadinejad characterized the decision as a present to the British people to mark the March 30 birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, Passover and Easter.
"I would like to announce that the great nation of Iran, while it is entitled to put the British military personnel on trial, has pardoned these 15 sailors and gives their release to the people of Britain as a gift," he said.
British diplomats appeared to be caught off-guard at the announcement but scrambled to make arrangements for the sailors' return to Britain. The group arrived at Tehran's airport early today, boarding a British Airways flight bound for London.
The crisis began March 23 after the Britons had completed a routine inspection of an Indian merchant ship in the coastal waters off southern Iraq near the Iranian border.
The British personnel were disembarking to their vessels when they found themselves surrounded by six Iranian boats armed with heavy machine guns and rocket launchers.
Iran said the Britons had trespassed into Iranian waters and backed its claim with satellite data that — inexplicably — showed the British vessels were in Iraqi waters. When Britain noted this, Iran presented a revised set of satellite coordinates.
Britain has maintained steadfastly that its vessels and personnel were at all times in Iraqi waters.
The logjam appears to have broken after telephone contacts Tuesday night between Ali Larijani, Iran's chief international negotiator, and Nigel Sheinwald, Prime Minister Tony Blair's chief adviser on foreign affairs, who is scheduled to become Britain's new ambassador to the United States.
It also followed the release in Iraq of an Iranian diplomat detained in Baghdad in February, prompting the British media to speculate about a "secret deal." British officials said the events were unconnected.
Also in Iraq, the U.S. military disclosed Wednesday it was considering an "informal" request from Iran to allow a consular visit to five Iranians detained in Iraq since January.
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, a U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said an Iranian was among a Red Cross delegation that visited the five men.
The United States has accused Iran of sending weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq. That led to speculation that the Iranians seized the Britons in retaliation for the detention of five Iranians by U.S. forces in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil in January. Iran denied any connection.
In his news conference, Ahmadinejad said no concessions had been offered by the British government in exchange for the release but contended that British officials had assured Iran there would be no future incursions into Iranian territory.
A Foreign Office spokesman who spoke on condition of anonymity said he "certainly could not confirm" that Britain offered any pledge not to "repeat" the incident.
Blair expressed "profound relief" over the peaceful end to the crisis that had escalated over nearly two weeks, raising oil prices and fears of military conflict in the volatile region. Within 20 minutes of Ahmadinejad's announcement, crude-oil prices slipped $1.20 a barrel. Oil futures had surged 7 percent, to above $64 a barrel, since the sailors were taken hostage March 23.
"Throughout we have taken a measured approach — firm but calm, not negotiating, but not confronting either," Blair said in London, adding a message to the Iranian people that "we bear you no ill will."
Ahmadinejad's pardon announcement came after the Iranian president had spent more than an hour of a scheduled news conference deploring historical Western transgressions against Iran, the plight of the Palestinians, the grim history of Iran's war with Iraq and the actions of the British sailors who "invaded" the territory of Iran.
He also awarded medals to three Border Guards officers involved in the capture. Moments later, he announced the release of the captives.
Almost immediately, the captives were shown in gray suits, smiling and shaking hands with Ahmadinejad, who jokingly referred to their "mandatory vacation" in Iran.
"I'd like to say that myself and my whole team are very grateful for your forgiveness. I'd like to thank yourself and the Iranian people," one crew member told the president.
Later, Iranian television broadcast brief interviews with several detainees, in which they described their treatment during captivity in positive terms.
In Britain, there were immediate celebrations.
"It's been a long two weeks," said John Tindall, father of 21-year-old Marine Joe Tindall. "My wife particularly, it's been hard on her, but she's probably cried twice as much today as she has the past two weeks."
Compiled from Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and The Associated Press
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