Image: Vehicle carrying British servicemen in Iran.
Hasan Sarbakhshian  /  AP
Eight British servicemen sitting inside a vehicle are watched by an Iranian security guard as they arrive at Mehrabad airport in Tehran, Iran on Thursday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 6/24/2004 8:05:07 PM ET 2004-06-25T00:05:07

Britain said on Thursday eight naval personnel freed by Iran after being held since Monday for straying into its waters, had left the British Embassy in Tehran and were departing the country.

A Foreign Office spokesman initially told Reuters the men were “going home” but later said he was unable to comment on their destination.

A diplomatic source in Tehran, who declined to be identified, said the men were “heading for Mehrabad airport,” the Iranian capital’s international airport.

British diplomats earlier took custody of the eight and flew with them to Tehran from the gulf area, where they were held on Monday after straying into Iranian waters from Iraq.

Warning from Iran
“I think Iran felt that now was the time to remind the U.S. and Britain that it is a power to be reckoned with, it is not a power to be pushed around,” Rime Allaf, an associate fellow at London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs, said Thursday.

The eight were held in the sweltering province of Khuzestan in Iran’s oil-rich southwest after they were seized on the Iranian side of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, or Arvand River, along the Iran-Iraq border while delivering a patrol boat to Iraq's new river police.

Diplomats visited them Wednesday and said they had been well looked after.

Iran’s Arabic-language Al-Alam channel had shown the men blindfolded and forced to walk in single file earlier in their detention.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the eight traveled from the Persian Gulf area to Tehran with British consular officers.

"I'm told that they are in very good spirits and were well cared for," he said in a brief statement. He said they would be taken to the British Embassy. He did not specify where they would then go.

Strained relations
Al-Alam TV said a number of protesters waited at the Tehran airport for the arrival of the troops. Hard-line Iranians opposed to Britain's prominent role in the occupation of Iraq have in recent weeks held angry demonstrations outside the British Embassy.

Strains between the two nations increased last week when Britain helped draft an International Atomic Energy Agency resolution rebuking Iran for past nuclear cover-ups.

The servicemen's capture had further fueled tensions between the two countries, but Straw said he remained convinced that Britain's policy of engaging with Iran was wise.

“We have diplomatic relations with Iran, we work hard on those relationships and sometimes the relationships are complicated but I'm in no doubt at all that our policy of engagement with the government of Iran ... is the best approach,” Straw said, praising the efforts of his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharrazi.

Iran had initially said it would prosecute the British servicemen for illegally entering Iranian waters. Concern in Britain ran high after Al-Alam television showed the sailors blindfolded and sitting cross-legged on the ground.

But telephone conversations between Straw and Kharrazi and constant dialogue between British and Iranian officials appeared to ease the situation, and Iran softened its position, saying the servicemen would be freed if interrogations proved they had "no bad intention."

TV apology
Two of the Britons appeared on Iranian television Tuesday night apologizing for mistakenly entering Iranian waters.

Al Alam via APTN
An image from Iranian television on Wednesday shows the British sailors walking near an unidentified beach.
The Ministry of Defense said the personnel were from the Royal Navy training team based in southern Iraq and were delivering a boat from Umm Qasr to Basra, Iraq, when they were captured.

Iran said it will keep the three boats in which the British troops were traveling, as well as their weapons and other equipment, Al-Alam reported. But Straw said Britain and Iran were still discussing the possible return of the sailors' equipment and boats.

The waterway has long been a source of tension between Iran and Iraq. The Iran-Iraq war broke out in 1980 after Saddam Hussein claimed the entire waterway. The war ended in 1988.

Also Thursday, Iran said it had briefly held, investigated and then released an unspecified number of Turkish troops who had strayed across the border "by mistake," state-run television reported.

It gave no timing for the detention or release of the troops.

But unconfirmed reports said Wednesday that 25 Turkish soldiers chasing Kurdish rebels crossed into Iran and were arrested by Iranian forces.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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