The Iranian military questioned 15 detained British sailors and marines Saturday and said they had confessed to illegally entering Iranian waters in an act of “blatant aggression.”
Britain has demanded the return of the sailors and marines and denied they had strayed into Iranian waters while searching for smugglers off Iraq’s coast.
The eight Royal Navy sailors and seven Royal Marines were brought to Tehran for questioning, and a a top military official, Gen. Ali Reza Afshar, said they “confessed to illegal entry into Iran’s waters.”
“The said personnel are being interrogated and have confessed to aggression into the Islamic Republic of Iran’s waters,” Afshar was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA and the semiofficial ISNA news agency. He did not say what would now be done with the sailors.
The British marines and sailors, who included at least one woman, had just searched a merchant ship when they and their two inflatable boats were intercepted by Iranian vessels Friday at around 10:30 a.m. near the disputed Shatt al-Arab waterway, U.S. and British officials said. The Iranian vessels surrounded them and escorted them away at gunpoint.
The seizure of the British sailors came at a time of heightened tensions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and over allegations that Iran is arming Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq. Still, Britain was treating it as a mistake rather than a provocation.
EU calls for ‘immediate liberation’
In London, the British government summoned the Iranian ambassador for the second time, demanding the safe return of the sailors and Royal Marines. Iran summoned the British charge d’affaires to the Foreign Ministry on Friday and demanded an immediate explanation.
Lord Triesman, a Foreign Office under-secretary, spent more than an hour with Rasoul Movahedian, and sought assurances about the group’s welfare and consular access, the British government said.
The European Union also called for the “immediate liberation” of the captured sailors.
Iranian hard-liners called for the 15 Britons to be held until Iran wins political concessions from the West.
Several conservative student groups have called on the Iranian government not to release sailors until five Iranians detained by U.S. forces in Iraq earlier this year are freed and U.N. plans for sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program are canceled. Some 500 Iranian students gathered on the shore near where the soldiers were captured, shouting “Death to Britain” and “Death to America,” the Fars news agency reported.
The U.N. Security Council was scheduled to vote Saturday on new sanctions against Iran over its refusal of U.N. demands that it suspend uranium enrichment. The U.S. and other nations suspect Iran is trying to produce nuclear weapons. Iran denies that and insists it will not halt the program.
‘If they make any mistake ...’
With tensions running high, the United States has bolstered its naval forces in the Persian Gulf in a show of strength directed at Iran. U.S. officials have expressed concern that with so much military hardware in the Gulf, a small incident like Friday’s could escalate into a dangerous confrontation.
In his comments on the sailors, Afshar added a warning that the United States would not be able to control the consequences if it attacks Iran.
“The United States and its allies know that if they make any mistake in their calculations ... they will not be able to control the dimensions and limit the duration of a war,” Afshar said.
In June 2004, six British marines and two sailors were seized by Iran in the same waterway. They were presented blindfolded on Iranian television and admitted entering Iranian waters illegally, then released unharmed after three days.
Earlier this week, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, warned this week that if Western countries “treat us with threats and enforcement of coercion and violence, undoubtedly they must know that the Iranian nation and authorities will use all their capacities to strike enemies that attack.”
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini accused the British of “violating the sovereign boundaries” of Iran, calling the entry a “blatant aggression.”
He accused Britain of trying to cover up the incursion, saying it should “refrain from putting the blame on others.”
The seizure of the Britons took place in an area where boundaries between Iraqi and Iranian waters have long been disputed. A 1975 treaty set the center of the Shatt al-Arab — the 125-mile-long channel known in Iran as the Arvand River — as the border.
But Saddam Hussein canceled the 1975 treaty five years later and invaded Iran, triggering an eight-year war. Virtually all of Iraq’s oil is exported through a terminal near the mouth of the channel.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said the Royal Navy personnel were in Iraqi territorial waters when they were seized. Cmdr. Kevin Aandahl of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain also said it was “very clear” they were in Iraqi waters.
“We’ve been on operations there for several years,” Aandahl said. He said coalition vessels respect the 1975 treaty.
The sailors, from the frigate HMS Cornwall, are part of a task force that maintains security in Iraqi waters under authority of the U.N. Security Council.
The Cornwall’s commander, Commodore Nick Lambert, said he hoped the detention was a “simple mistake” stemming from the unclear border.
But the Iraqi military commander of the country’s territorial waters said the British boats may not have been in Iraqi territory.
“We were informed by Iraqi fishermen after they had returned from sea that there were British gunboats in an area that is out of Iraqi control,” Brig. Gen. Hakim Jassim told AP Television News in the southern city of Basra.
“We don’t know why they were there,” he said.
The news agency Fars said navigational equipment on the seized British boats “show that they (sailors) were aware that they were operating in Iranian waters and Iranian border guards fulfilled their responsibility.”