LONDON — Fifteen British sailors and marines released by Iran arrived at Tehran’s airport early Thursday and departed on a London-bound flight, Iran radio reported.
The 15, whose release from nearly two weeks in Iranian captivity was announced Wednesday by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, arrived in a convoy of sedans that drove directly to the presidential VIP section of the airport, the reporter said.
The convoy was escorted by several cars belonging to the elite Revolutionary Guards.
Iran on Wednesday freed the 15 detained British sailors and marines in what President Ahmadinejad called an Easter gift to the British people. Prime Minister Tony Blair said he bore “no ill will” toward the Iranian people.
Ahmadinejad’s surprise announcement came at a news conference shortly after he pinned a medal on the chest of the Iranian coast guard commander who intercepted the sailors and marines.
“I’m glad that our 15 service personnel have been released and I know their release will come as a relief not just to them but to their families,” Blair said outside his No. 10 Downing St. office. “Throughout, we have taken a measured approach, firm but calm, not negotiating but not confronting, either.”
Blair added, “To the Iranian people I would simply say this: We bear you no ill will.”
Iranian state television later showed the British sailors talking to Ahmadinejad at the country's presidential palace apparently minutes before they were to be freed.
The footage showed Ahmadinejad shaking hands with the sailors and smiling and chatting.
The Iranian president had said the Britons would be taken to Tehran aiport at the end of the press conference that he was addressing, but The Associated Press and Reuters news agency later reported that they would be flying out on Thursday.
The White House hailed the release. "As Prime Minister Blair just said, President Bush also welcomes the news," Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said.
Syria claims role in release
Syria's information minister and foreign minister said Damascus had played a key role in resolving the standoff.
Information Minister Mohsen Bilal said that "Syrian efforts and the Iranian willingness culminated with the release of the British sailors." Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told reporters that "Syria exercised a sort of quiet diplomacy to solve this problem and encourage dialogue between the two parties."
The two officials did not provide details of the Syrian mediation.
Gift to Britain
Ahmadinejad said he had pardoned the sailors as a gift to the British people and to mark the birthday of Islam's Prophet Muhammed and Easter.
"On the occasion of the birthday of the great prophet (Muhammad) ... and for the occasion of the passing of Christ, I say the Islamic Republic government and the Iranian people -- with all powers and legal right to put the soldiers on trial -- forgave those 15," he said, referring to the Muslim prophet's birthday last Saturday and Easter, next Sunday.
"This pardon is a gift to the British people," he said.
"On behalf of the great Iranian people, I want to thank the Iranian Coast Guard who courageously defended and captured those who violated their territorial waters, the president told a press conference.
He then interrupted his speech and pinned a medal on the commander of the Coast Guards involved in capturing the British sailors and marines in the northern Gulf on March 23. Two other Coast Guards came on to the podium and saluted during the ceremony.
Concern for female sailor?
He criticized Britain for deploying Leading Seaman Faye Turney, one of the 15 Britons, in the Gulf, pointing out that she is a woman with a child.
"How can you justify seeing a mother away from her home, her children? Why don't they respect family values in the West?" he asked of the British government.
Answering questions, Ahmadinejad said there was no link between the sailors' release and the release in Baghdad on Monday of an Iranian diplomat who was seized by gunmen wearing Iraqi military uniforms in January.
"If we had wanted to exchange Jalal Sharafi with the rest (of the Britons) we would have exchanged him for 100,000. But we pardoned them," he said, adding the decision was "based on humanitarian considerations."
The president also weighed in on his country's diplomatic standoff with the United States.
"If Mr. Bush and his government change their behavior ... this side (Iran) has the ability to reconsider" its ties with Washington, he said, without specifying what change he wanted to see.
The White House responded that it was Tehran that needed to change its behavior and again urged the Iranian government to abandon its efforts nuclear program if it wants to improve relations with the United States.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.