Iran orders release of British sailors

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The Independent Online

Eight British sailors detained for illegally entering Iran's territorial waters will be released today, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said.

Eight British sailors detained for illegally entering Iran's territorial waters will be released today, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said.

The men were detained on Monday in the Shatt al-Arab waterway that runs along the Iran-Iraq border as they were delivering a patrol boat for the new Iraqi Riverine Patrol Service. The waterway is known as the Arvand River in Iran.

A top military official told state-run radio that the sailors were being released because their intrusion into Iran's waters was apparently a mistake.Iran had earlier said the men would be prosecuted.

"Considering statements by British sailors that the boats carrying them mistakenly entered Iran's territorial waters, the armed forces decided to release the boats and their occupants," an Armed Forces spokesman General Ali Reza Afshar told the radio.

"Those detained were carrying full military equipment and specialised maps of the region. After our investigation, it became clear that the equipment was for use in their coastal patrol mission," the radio quoted Afshar as saying.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman told The Associated Press that Kharrazi played a key role in resolving the minor border incident that was turning into a major diplomatic crisis.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had phoned Kharrazi yesterday to ask for the release of the sailors, who were shown on Iranian television blindfolded and seated cross-legged on the ground.

Earlier, Afshar had said Iran would release the men, "If the outcome of interrogations shows that they had no bad intention."

The waterway, Iraq's main link with the Persian Gulf that divides Iran and Iraq, has long been a source of tension between the neighbours. The 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war broke out after Saddam Hussein claimed the entire waterway.Iran said the British vessels were 1,000 metres inside Iranian territorial waters.

Yesterday, two sailors were shown on television apologising for mistakenly entering Iran's territorial waters.

"My name is Sergeant Thomas Harkins from the British Royal Marines. I do apologise for entering Iranian territorial waters," the one said on Al-Alam, an Arabic-language station.

A British government official did not dispute Harkins's name and rank.The broadcast showed the men standing next to a river and reading from a prepared text. It also showed the three British military patrol boats and weapons it said had been confiscated from the sailors.

British-Iranian relations have run hot and cold for years. The detentions follow a fresh strain after London helped draft a resolution rebuking Iran for past nuclear cover-ups at last week's meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors.

Iran says its program is aimed only at producing energy, while the United States accuses Tehran of trying to develop nuclear weapons. Iran accused Britain, which it had seen as a partner in the investigation into its nuclear activities, of caving in to US pressure.

Iranians repeatedly demonstrated in front of the British Embassy in Tehran last month, throwing stones at the building to protest the US-led occupation of Iraq. Britain is America's main coalition partner in Iraq.

Protesters also condemned war damage to Shiite holy shrines in Iraq, demanded the expulsion of the British ambassador to Tehran and called for the embassy to be closed.

British-Iranian ties also were strained in 1989 when the founder of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, against British author Salman Rushdie.

In 1998, the Iranian government declared it would not support the fatwa and the two countries exchanged ambassadors in 1999.

In 2002, Iran rejected a British candidate for ambassador, claiming he was a Jewish spy. A year later, shots were fired at the British Embassy in Tehran, after Britain briefly held an Iranian diplomat accused of helping to mastermind the car bombing of a Jewish centre in Argentina.

Iran has expressed pleasure over the toppling of Saddam, but has strongly opposed deployment of US-led coalition forces on its borders, citing security concerns.