Iranian TV shows blindfolded captives

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The Independent Online

The capture of eight Royal Navy sailors by Iranian forces threatened to become a diplomatic crisis yesterday as pictures of some of the men blindfolded and sitting cross-legged on the ground were shown on Iranian television.

The capture of eight Royal Navy sailors by Iranian forces threatened to become a diplomatic crisis yesterday as pictures of some of the men blindfolded and sitting cross-legged on the ground were shown on Iranian television.

Iranian media reported the sailors, who were captured on Monday, would be put on trial for "illegally entering Iranian territorial waters".

But a senior spokesman for the Iranian military last night contradicted those reports, saying the eight sailors may be released. "If the outcome of the interrogations of the British military men shows that they had no bad intention, they will be released soon," said General Ali Reza Afshar.

The eight men, who were serving with British forces in southern Iraq, were captured on Monday on the Shatt al-Arab river, which marks the border between Iraq and Iran. The Royal Navy insists they were on a "routine mission", training Iraqi crews to police the river, which is a well-known route for smugglers who use boats with false decks and hidden compartments beneath them.

Iranian television pictures last night showed two of the sailors without blindfolds apologising for accidentally entering Iranian waters. "The team wrongly entered Iranian waters and we apologise for this mistake because it was a big mistake," one of the sailors, identified as Sergeant Thomas Hawkins, said on the broadcast, reading from a prepared text.

The border runs down the middle of the river, and it is possible that the men strayed into Iranian waters by mistake, as the Ministry of Defence tried to suggest yesterday. Media reports in Iran have claimed that the men were heavily armed - although that would not be surprising given the state of affairs in Iraq - and carrying suspicious maps.

There were frantic British diplomatic efforts to free the sailors yesterday. The Foreign Office said it was "very concerned" at the television pictures showing the men blindfolded, and summoned the Iranian ambassador to demand an explanation. The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, phoned his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharrazi, to ask him to intervene personally to secure the sailors' release.

The conflicting messages from Iran may reflect internal divisions over what to do about the Britons. It is possible that some hardliners want to put them on trial, but that moderates, or even what is left of the severely weakened reform movement, are resisting this. But it would not be unusual in Iran for such apparent divisions to be for the West's benefit. The arrest of the sailors marks a change in policy from Iran, which has turned a blind eye to minor incursions of its border by the occupation forces in Iraq, until now.

Iran has enjoyed relatively warm relations with Britain in recent years, but the arrests of the sailors has the hallmarks of a typical diplomatic ploy by the Iranian regime to exert leverage when it is unhappy with a foreign power's actions.

When Germany hosted a conference for Iranian reformers a few years ago, a German living in Iran was arrested and sentenced to death for sex outside marriage with an Iranian woman.

Iran is not happy with Britain after it helped draft a resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency condemning the country for its failure to co-operate with nuclear inspections. But Iran may have another motive for capturing the sailors - just to prove that it can do so with impunity. A year ago, with President George Bush triumphant after the swift and easy overthrow of Saddam Hussein and daily warnings that Iran could be next, the Iranian regime was boxed in and on the defensive.

But with the debacle in Iraq, it may now want to demonstrate how the failure of the occupation there means it is now free to do as it wants - even to beard the US-led forces on its doorstep.

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