The 15 British sailors and marines captured by Iran were not trained to withstand captivity in hostile hands, British defense officials said yesterday.
A navy spokesman at the British Defense Ministry said it is difficult to discuss the rules for the captives without helping the Iranians controlling the sailors and marines, who were seized March 23 by Revolutionary Guards forces.
A second British defense official said discussing such rules was a problem, since any official comments might endanger the captives.
“We wouldn’t want to give away the game,” this official said.
However, the navy spokesman said the sailors and marines were not engaged in combat operations and were conducting a search of a suspect vessel in a “friendly environment” when they were seized.
“We’re not talking about people in a war environment,” the official said. “Therefore, the level of training is different.”
For example, special-operations commandos are trained in specific techniques for withstanding hostile interrogation and torture.
Some of the sailors and marines have made public “confessions” that British Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested were coerced, in violation of international conventions on handling prisoners of war.
The Third Geneva Convention states that captured military personnel are required only to provide their captors with name, rank, date of birth and service number.
“These are ordinary sailors that were doing a routine boarding operation who now find themselves in a very unusual situation,” the British spokesman said. “They’re living on their wits and common sense to survive.”
A retired British colonel said the days of withholding all military-unit information are gone because the Internet often posts such basic data.
However, military personnel are discouraged from cooperating, and there is a strict prohibition on providing classified information, the former officer said.
A U.S. defense official said the Joint Chiefs of Staff upgraded the 1950s-era “code of conduct” for captured U.S. military personnel after the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. The code provides moral guidance but is not applied to all captive or hostage situations. It is applied on a “situational basis,” and misconduct can result in prosecution under military law, the official said.
Critics have said the British military’s vague rules of engagement on when force can be used may have contributed to the capture and subsequent standoff.
U.S. forces in the region operate under stricter rules of engagement, which allow them to use force if hostile boats or ships come too close. It appears the British rules were lax in that the Iranians were able to get close enough to seize the sailors.