Attempts to free sailors run aground

Diplomatic overture rebuffed as Iran threatens 'hard and serious measures' if captured Britons had 'evil intentions'

Diplomatic efforts to secure the release of five British yachtsmen being held by Iran escalated last night after Tehran warned that the men faced serious punishment if they were found to have acted with "evil intentions".

The Foreign Secretary, David Milliband, spoke to the Iranian Foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki and pressed him "for clear information on what had happened and for a statement of Iranian intentions in respect of the five," the Foreign Office said in a statement. "He reiterated our demand for formal consular access to the men, and his hope that this issue be brought to a speedy conclusion and the release of all five." Mr Miliband earlier played down any suggestion of confrontation, claiming that the matter had "nothing to do with politics".

But concern for the five, who were detained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard last Wednesday having strayed mistakenly into the country's territorial waters, rose sharply after Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaie, chief of staff for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told Iran's semi-official Fars news agency that his country's judiciary would decide the men's fate. "Naturally our measures will be hard and serious if we find out they had evil intentions."

In London, Rasoul Movahedian, Iran's ambassador to the UK, was invited to the Foreign Office for talks with Peter Ricketts, a permanent under-secretary, a meeting at which it was made clear that Britain wanted confirmation of where the yachtsmen were being held, immediate consular access, and a "speedy resolution". A Foreign Office spokesman said: "Since it is now almost a week since the yachtsmen were held, the delay in providing a full explanation of what had happened and clarity on Iranian intentions is a matter of increasing concern."

The standoff comes at a time of increased international tension over Iran's nuclear ambitions, with an ultimatum over Tehran's refusal to provide full disclosure on a newly discovered uranium enrichment plant delivered by world powers last Friday. Tehran reacted defiantly to the pressure, announcing on Sunday that it intends to build 10 more such plants. This has baffled even friendly nations such as Russia which yesterday indicated it might support a UN sanctions move.

Against this backdrop there are very real fears that Iran, facing deep internal divisions since the disputed June elections and hugely suspicious of foreign intentions, will not hand over the British detainees quickly. Mr Ahmadinejad, who last night warned the world that it would regret any "aggression" over sanctions, may see the yacht incident as a matter from which he can extract some useful propaganda value domestically.

The difficulty for Britain, according to analysts, is that while the Foreign Office must attempt to pursue the case through the Iranian foreign ministry, real power lies with Mr Ahmadinejad and his military enforcers who seized the trespassing yachtsmen in the Persian Gulf. One hope is that Bahrain, which is on friendly terms with Iran, and from where the men set sail en route to Dubai, may be able to broker a compromise.

Last night the families of Oliver Smith, 31, Oliver Young, 21, Sam Usher, 26, Luke Porter, 21, and David Bloomer insisted they were all level-headed men, well-equipped to cope with the stress of arrest. The four sailors and the Bahrain-based DJ were on board Sail Bahrain's Kingdom of Bahrain Volvo 60 racing yacht on their way to the start of the Dubai-Muscat Offshore Sailing race when they ran into the Iranian security forces.

Yesterday Mr Young's father, David, said the families hoped they would not pay the price for tense relations between the two countries. "We're all concerned and the sooner they are released, the better," he said. "It's just a worry that there are diplomatic stresses at the moment. We just hope they're not used as a bargaining chip."

Mr Porter's parents, Charles and Beverley, said they were extremely worried but believed they would be released. Charles Porter said they had spoken to their son in a brief phone call last Thursday, adding: "He couldn't say an awful lot. A lot of questions I asked he couldn't give answers to. But he sounded in control of his own personal self. He's bored and frustrated and looking forward to getting home... He's very brave, he's very calm, cool and calculated and I reckon he'll deal with it well."

The Tory MP Ben Wallace, chairman of the British-Iranian All-Party Parliamentary Group, said the actions of the Iranian authorities might be a deliberate move to gain political leverage. "A normal nation would stop a yacht, check it out, maybe take it back to shore and get rid of them," he said. "But this is five, six days into the incident. That is much more worrying, that is more deliberate."

Mr Miliband, however, said: "This is a human story of five young yachtsmen. It's got nothing to do with politics. It's got nothing to do with [Iran's] nuclear enrichment programme."

The Government was swift to distance the incident from the moment two-and-a-half years ago when 15 Royal Navy sailors and Marines were detained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, held for almost a fortnight and publicly paraded before being released. At the time the Ministry of Defence remained adamant the team was within Iraqi waters. However, in the latest case they have conceded the yacht may have inadvertently strayed into Iranian waters near the island of Sirri after trying to circumnavigate a restricted oil field area.

Richard Shaw, senior research fellow at the Institute of Maritime Law at the University of Southampton, said the law of the sea allowed provision for "innocent passage" through territorial waters. "The complication in this case is that the yacht was not proceeding – it had stopped."

In captivity: The five Britons on board Kingdom of Bahrain

Oliver Smith

The skipper of the yacht is 31. He is an experienced sailor with a degree in ocean science and marine navigation from Plymouth University, where he sailed with the men's first team. He then spent six months skippering a 50ft survey yacht and doing delivery work in South America and the Caribbean. He was in a team that came third in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, and in 2003 went on to work for Pure Sailing as skipper of a Volvo 60 race boat. A friend, Conrad Humphreys, said: "He will be used to working in obscure hours with little sleep."

Luke Porter

Mr Porter's parents, Charles and Beverley, say that the 21-year-old professional sailor is used to dealing with adversity. He first started crewing his father's racing yacht at 14 and is now an "ocean master" with vast experience, having made five transatlantic crossings and taken part in regattas in the Caribbean. Charles Porter, of Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, said: "He is a very strong character, very resilient. He's as good as we can expect."

Oliver Young

One of the youngest of the captives, 21-year-old Mr Young was described as very mature for his age. One of four brothers, from Saltash, near Plymouth, he qualified as a professional yachtsman after leaving school. His mother, Susan, said: "He will be absolutely fine. He is a very strong person, he will be coping. The team get on really well, they are a really nice group of lads and I am not worried about their morale or anything like that. As a mother I do feel worried, but who wouldn't be? We are just hopeful that it will all come to an end very soon." Sailing had always been a passion, she said, and she doubted that this would put him off.

David Bloomer

A well-known radio presenter in Bahrain, where he has lived since the mid-Eighties, Mr Bloomer hosts the Friday morning sports show. He planned to send reports of the yacht's progress back from the race. In his sixties and married to a Gulf Air hostess, he sailed in his youth but developed a passion for off-road driving, qualifying as an instructor and taking part in adventures from the Amazon to the Namib and Kalahari deserts. A friend said he would be a calming influence on the younger captives with his unfailing "dry Irish sense of humour".

Sam Usher

The father of two children Mr Usher, 26, has owned and run a sailing academy called Wykeham Watersports in Yorkshire for the past five years. As well as offering instruction in sailing, windsurfing, power boating, canoeing and kayaking, it is affiliated with a charity that helps people with cancer and their families. Just before their capture he posted a message on Facebook, saying: "Hi Lads, see you in a few days for the event. Hope all has been going ok!"

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