- The Washington Times - Monday, June 21, 2004

TEHRAN — Iran seized three British military patrol boats yesterday in the Shatt-al-Arab waterway, Iraq’s main link with the Persian Gulf, and state media said eight armed crewmen were detained for entering Iranian territorial waters.

Britain confirmed it had lost contact with a patrol of three small vessels that Royal Navy personnel were delivering to an Iraqi river patrol. It said Britain was in contact with Iran to determine the circumstances of the seizure and whether the detainees were Royal Navy boat crews.

The waterway that divides Iran and Iraq has long been a source of tension between the neighbors. The 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war broke out after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein claimed the entire waterway.

Yesterday’s incident follows a strain in relations after Britain 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.

The British Foreign Office said it was told by Iran that eight Royal Navy personnel are being held.

“We’ve asked for full details on who is holding them, where they’re being held and for full access to them,” a Foreign Office official said.

Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said Iranian naval guards, “acting upon their legal duty,” seized the boats and detained the occupants when they entered Iran’s territorial waters, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

The Arabic-language Al-Alam television reported the three British boats were seized at 11 a.m. and that crew members were carrying maps and weapons.

It said the boats were confiscated between the Bahmanshir and Arvand rivers, which would put them in the Shatt-al-Arab waterway, east of the Iraqi city of Faw.

British forces asked Iraqi coast guard officials to appeal to the Iranians for the release of the patrol boats and crews.

Iraqi officials said the office of Iraqi Gen. Ali Hammadi had made contact with Iranian authorities and hoped the Britons would be released quickly.

The Royal Navy has been training Iraqi personnel in coastal defense for several weeks on the Shatt al-Arab waterway, and it is possible the vessels were taking part in such an exercise.

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