Eight British troops held by Iran are finally freed

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The Independent Online

Eight British servicemen arrested when they strayed into Iranian territory were in the care of British diplomats yesterday after three days in detention which had threatened a diplomatic crisis.

Eight British servicemen arrested when they strayed into Iranian territory were in the care of British diplomats yesterday after three days in detention which had threatened a diplomatic crisis.

Officials at the British embassy in Tehran indicated that the group of six Royal Marines and two Royal Navy personnel could be flown out of Iran as early as last night and returned to their base in the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

The release of the men was greeted with relief in London after 72 hours of negotiations between British diplomats and the Iranian authorities.

The incident, sparked when three patrol boats accidentally crossed into the Iranian part of the Shatt al Arab waterway between Iraq and Iran on Monday, created alarm in Whitehall when the men were paraded in blindfolds on television and it was announced that they could stand trial.

Tony Blair's official spokesman said a complaint about the pictures had been made to the Iranians but underlined the amicable resolution to the affair. "We have no reason to believe the men are in anything other than good condition. We are glad that the matter has been able to be resolved diplomatically," he said. "We did make our concerns known about the TV pictures but I think the important thing is that we have been able to resolve the issue. The important thing now is to get the servicemen, when they are ready, out of Tehran back to their base in Iraq."

After arriving in the Iranian capital by air yesterday lunchtime from the port of Mahshahr at the northern tip of the Persian Gulf, the eight were driven to the British compound in Tehran, a haven of extensive lush gardens nestled between the highways and tower blocks of a buzzing metropolis.

Television pictures showed the servicemen walking across the sun-baked runway of Mahshahr airport and sitting in the plane waiting for take-off.

The fate of their impounded equipment - three launches, one of which was being delivered to a newly formed Iraqi river patrol service - remained unclear.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, thanked his Iranian counterpart and insisted that working with the Islamic Republic, divided between conservative clerics and reformist politicians, was reaping diplomatic benefits. Referring to tensions between the two countries he admitted that sometimes the relations were "complicated". Britain has been much-criticised in the Iranian press for its hardening stance on Tehran's nuclear programme and human rights record.

Iranian television showed the men relaxing on beds before the arrival of British diplomats on Wednesday evening.

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