ROYAL MARINE BASE CHIVENOR, England — The British sailors and marines held captive for nearly two weeks in Iran were blindfolded, bound and faced constant psychological pressure, a Royal Navy lieutenant said Friday.
Lt. Felix Carman said the crew faced harsh interrogation by their Iranian captors and slept in stone cells on piles of blankets.
“All of us were kept in isolation. We were interrogated most nights and presented with two options. If we admitted that we’d strayed, we’d be on a plane to (Britain) pretty soon,” Carman said. “If we didn’t, we faced up to seven years in prison.”
Iran responded by saying the news conference was “staged” to cover up their illegal entry into the Islamic state’s territory.
“Such staged moves cannot cover up the mistake made by British military personnel who illegally entered Iran’s territory,” a Foreign Ministry statement, which was faxed to Reuters, said.
‘They rammed our boats’
Royal Marine Capt. Chris Air said the crew of 15, which was out on a routine operation on March 23, was confronted by members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
“They rammed our boats, and trained their heavy machine guns, RPGs, and weapons on us. Another six boats were closing in on us,” Air said. “We realized that had we resisted there would have been a major fight, one we could not have won, with consequences that would have major strategic impacts. We made a conscious decision not to engage the Iranians.”
Britain’s top naval officer said boarding operations would be suspended while a review is conducted.
“Coalition operations continue under U.K. command,” said Adm. Jonathon Band, head of the Royal Navy. “Currently, our (operations) have been suspended while we do that review.”
‘We were inside Iraqi waters’
While much of the country rallied behind the crew’s return, others criticized them for offering apologies where none was required—namely for appearing in videos in which they admitted and offered regrets for entering Iranian waters.
Carman had been pictured on Iranian television apologizing for straying into Iranian waters. At Friday’s news conference, he retracted that apology.
“Let me make this clear—irrespective of what was said in the past—we were inside Iraqi waters,” he said.
The most visible of the seized sailors and marines was Leading Seaman Faye Turney, a 26-year-old mother of one. Her letters home received widespread publicity in Britain, particularly one in which she requested the British government withdraw from Iraq.
Air said she was singled out for propaganda purposes, held in solitary confinement and told the others had gone home.
“She was under the impression for about four days that she was the only one there,” Air said. “She coped admirably and has maintained a lot of dignity.”
‘They appear to have played it by the rules’
Band told British Broadcasting Corp. radio that the crew had “acted with considerable dignity and a lot of courage.”
“They appear to have played it by the rules, they don’t appear to have put themselves into danger, others into danger, they don’t appear to have given anything away,” he said. “I think, in the end, they were a credit to us.”
Britain insisted the crew was on a routine operation when seized—but Sky News reported Thursday that Air said in an interview days before his capture that his crew was gathering intelligence on Iran during their patrols. Sky said it held the interview because it thought it could hamper the crew’s release.
Defense ministry officials denied the sailors and marines had an intelligence role, but said they routinely spoke to commanders of vessels using the Persian Gulf and Shatt Al-Arab waterway to determine who was using shipping routes.
Success of diplomacy
Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced Wednesday that the Britons would be released—a breakthrough in a crisis that had raised oil prices and escalated fears of military conflict in the volatile region. The move suggested Iran’s hard-line leadership had decided it had shown its strength but did not want to push the standoff too far.
But Iran did not get the main thing it sought—a public apology for entering Iranian waters. Britain insists it never offered a deal, instead relying on quiet and sometimes silent diplomacy.
A senior British government official said the mix of international support and diplomatic ties—however rocky—succeeded.
Countries ranging from Syria to Colombia pressed Iran for the release of the crew, whose capture began at the start of Iranian new year celebrations.
“By the time the senior Iranian leaders were getting back from their holiday, they were finding that their phone was ringing off the hook and they were finding that an awful lot of countries—including some quarters they weren’t expecting—were ringing them and saying they were in the wrong place and they should be releasing the people quickly,” the official said, on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Phone conversations between Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief international negotiator, and Blair’s chief foreign affairs adviser, Nigel Sheinwald, are believed to have cleared the way to the crew’s release and an end to the crisis.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.