TEHRAN — Iran is no longer holding eight British troops in custody, but they haven’t yet been handed over to Britain, the Iranian Foreign Ministry said yesterday.
A ministry spokeswoman did not say where the six Royal Marines and two British sailors were located, but insisted they were “free to leave.”
In a day of confusing statements by the two countries, Britain said last night that the troops were still in Iranian custody, and expressed confidence that they would be released soon.
The troops were detained Monday after their boats apparently strayed on to the Iranian side of the Shatt al-Arab waterway that runs along the Iran-Iraq border.
Earlier in the day, both Iran and Britain said the men would be released by the end of the day. Those words came after Iranian officials announced that the incursion appeared to be accidental.
But later yesterday, Iran’s Arabic-language TV channel Al-Alam broadcast an “urgent” caption on its screen reading: “The second round of talks on the British detainees is postponed until tomorrow, Thursday,” according to a translation provided by the British Broadcasting Corp.
The Iranian state channel had previously reported that British and Iranian officials were negotiating in the southwest Iranian town of Mah Shahr, near the spot where the British servicemen were detained.
When told of the Al-Alam caption, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said: “The sailors are not in detention any more. They are free to leave. The issue of handing them over to British authorities is merely a formality issue that has to be sorted out between Iranian and British officials.”
In London, a British Foreign Office spokesman rebutted the Iranian claim that the troops had been freed.
“They are still in custody in southwest Iran,” the spokesman said. However, he added the agreement to release the men “still stands, and there is no reason to believe there is any problem.”
The Iranian spokeswoman did not say where the British troops were. But a Foreign Office spokesman told Britain’s Press Association that the men were in Mah Shahr, and had been visited by British diplomats.
Late yesterday, the Foreign Office said it had not been told officially that the release had been delayed until today. It said that three British diplomats were traveling from Tehran to Abadan, a port on the Shatt al-Arab and 56 miles west of Mah Shahr, to receive the eight servicemen.
Iranian officials were quoted Tuesday as saying they would prosecute the British servicemen for illegally entering Iranian territory.
But after two telephone conversations between British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharrazi, and constant dialogue between the British and Iranian officials, Tehran announced yesterday that the men would be released.
Britain has said the eight servicemen were delivering a new patrol boat to Iraq’s river police when they were detained.
Iran will keep the three boats in which the British troops were traveling, as well as their weapons and other equipment, Al-Alam has reported.