- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 1, 2007

CAMP DAVID, Md. — President Bush yesterday said that Iran’s detention of 15 British sailors and marines for nine days is “inexcusable behavior,” and called for their immediate release.

“The Iranians must give back the hostages. They’re innocent,” Mr. Bush said during a joint press conference with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva at the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains.

“I strongly support the Blair government’s attempts to resolve this peacefully, and I support the prime minister when he said there were no quid pro quos,” Mr. Bush said, referring to British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s refusal to negotiate over the seized Britons.

The president avoided a question on whether Britain would be justified in using military force to retrieve the prisoners.

The sailors and marines were captured on March 23, and the Iranian government has insisted they were in Iranian waters. The British government has been equally insistent that the sailors and marines were carrying out legitimate anti-smuggling operations in Iraqi waters.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad yesterday repeated his government’s claim that the sailors and marines had crossed into Iranian waters and called the British government “arrogant” for refusing to apologize.

Also yesterday, Iran’s ambassador to Russia, Gholamreza Ansari, retracted comments that the British sailors and marines may be put on trial. Mr. Ansari said his comments had been mistranslated, according to IRNA, the Iranian news agency.

Although talks between the U.S. and Brazilian governments during a meeting yesterday afternoon centered on world trade negotiations and Brazil’s desire to export ethanol for biofuels to the United States, Iran cropped up as a point of tension between the two leaders.

Brazil’s government-controlled oil group, Petrobras, has in recent weeks increased cooperation with Iran’s oil company, NIDC, on drilling for oil in the Caspian Sea and Persian Gulf. The U.S. government was reported Friday to have communicated concern about this arrangement.

When asked whether Brazil might step back from doing business with Iran, Mr. Lula da Silva firmly rejected the idea.

“Iran has been an important trade partner for Brazil,” said Mr. Lula da Silva, the first Latin American leader to visit Camp David during Mr. Bush’s six years in office. “We have no political divergence with them, so we will continue to work together with Iran.”

Mr. Bush, who has led calls for Iran to stop pursuit of a nuclear weapon, was not pleased.

“Brazil is a sovereign nation. They just articulated a sovereign decision,” he said. “We would hope that nations would be very careful in dealing with Iran, particularly since Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon, and a major threat to world peace is if the Iranians had a nuclear weapon.”

The leaders also reiterated their commitment to finding a middle ground in the Doha round of world trade talks, but no substantive agreements were reached.

“The United States has a genuine desire to succeed,” Mr. Bush said.

The president yesterday also reiterated his support for embattled Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, who faces continued calls for his resignation from Democrats and a handful of Republicans over the firing of eight federal prosecutors last year.

“Attorney General Gonzales is an honorable and honest man. He has my full confidence,” Mr. Bush said. “He will testify in front of Congress, and he will tell the truth.”

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