Navy men held by Iran say they were forced into its waters

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The eight British servicemen seized by Iran last week were "forcibly escorted into Iranian territorial waters" before they were detained, Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, said last night.

The eight British servicemen seized by Iran last week were "forcibly escorted into Iranian territorial waters" before they were detained, Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, said last night.

The account of the events leading up to their detention for three days given by the men during a debriefing by officers threatens to cause a fresh diplomatic crisis with Iran and to sabotage efforts to smooth over dispute by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and Iranian leaders.

The six marines and two sailors were seized by the Iranians while on patrol on the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which forms the border between Iran and Iraq. It was thought they had strayed on to the Iran side of the waterway.

However, Mr Hoon said: "In a recent debriefing the crews have said that they were operating inside the Iraqi border and were forcibly escorted into Iranian territorial waters. Our assessment continues and will be greatly assisted by the retrieval of navigational information in the Global Positioning System equipment carried by the crews."

Mr Hoon said the Iranians had failed to comply with Tuesday's deadline to return the men's equipment, including three boats, radios, navigational equipment, weapons and ammunition. Following the servicemen's release, Iran's Foreign Minister, Kamal Kharrazi, had said the equipment would be returned.

One of the men has returned home due to medical reasons connected with the incident and a further two were sent back to Britain as their tour of duty had ended. The remaining five are continuing their work in Iraq.

The MoD said the detainees had been part of a Royal Navy training team heading to Basra when they were detained. There were, however, suspicions that they were on a patrol to intercept insurgents from Iran attacking Allied forces in Iraq.

The servicemen's account, revealed in a Commons written answer by the Defence Secretary, will be seen as a personal setback for Mr Straw, who led diplomatic efforts by Europe to avoid a confrontation between the US and Iran. He has been to Iran on five occasions since 2001, in spite of Bush's assertion it was part of the "axis of evil".

British Government sources said the Revolutionary Guards who had detained the men were not under the total control of the Iranian government. Ministers privately said that it was difficult to judge who was in charge in Iran.

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