Iran says five local British embassy staff freed

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The Independent Online

Iran said today five of the nine detained local staff at the British embassy in Tehran had been released while the other four were being held for questioning, state television reported.

Iranian media said on Sunday several local embassy staff had been held on accusations of involvement in the street protests that rocked Iran after a disputed 12 June presidential election.

"Out of nine people, five of them have been released and the rest are being interrogated," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi told a news conference in comments translated by Iran's English-language Press TV.

On Sunday, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband demanded the release of all the staff held and said his European Union colleagues had agreed to a "strong, collective response" to any "harassment and intimidation" against EU missions.

In London on Monday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown's spokesman said "four locally engaged staff from the British embassy" were still being held by the Iranian authorities.

"We are deeply concerned at their arrest and their continued detention. These arrests are completely unacceptable and unjustifiable," the spokesman told reporters.

Qashqavi said Miliband and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki had spoken on the phone on Sunday evening when Miliband stressed Britain's intention was not to interfere in Iran's internal affairs.

"Mottaki said that if they really prove this in practice ... this can be considered as a positive step," Qashqavi said.

Iran has stepped up accusations that Western powers - Britain and the United States in particular - are interfering in its internal affairs and fomenting post-election unrest. London and Washington have denied the allegations.

Iran's Intelligence Minister Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei said on Sunday the British embassy had played a role in the unrest following this month's election, including sending people among the protesters telling them what to do and what to chant.

Britain and Iran have already expelled two of each other's diplomats since the election, which stirred Iran's most striking display of internal dissent since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Mottaki was last week quoted as saying Iran was reviewing whether to downgrade ties with Britain. Qashqavi said closing down any foreign embassy or reducing diplomatic ties was not on Iran's agenda.

Qashqavi also said Iran expected Sweden to pay damages after about 200 protesters, some wearing masks and hurling stones, demonstrated outside the Iranian embassy in Stockholm on Friday.

He blamed an exiled Iranian opposition group as well as communists and monarchists for the incident, in which he said three of "our colleagues" were injured. Stockholm was known for being an "unsafe city for diplomats", Qashqavi said.