- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2007

3:10 p.m.

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a surprise move that defused escalating tension in the Middle East, announced the release of 15 captive British sailors and marines today in what he called an Easter gift to the British people.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, who said the Britons had been released, added that he bore “no ill will” toward the Iranian people following the 13-day standoff.

The breakthrough eased tensions that have been increasing steadily, raising fears of military conflict in the volatile region and prompting a spike in oil prices. It suggested that Iran’s hard-line leadership had decided Tehran had demonstrated its strength in the standoff but did not want to push the crisis too far.

Despite the announcement, however, the crew members had not arrived at the British Embassy as of 9 p.m local time in Tehran.

Alex Pinfield, first secretary of embassy in Tehran, said it’s not clear when they would be handed over or where they are going to spend the night. He indicated the British “are still discussing the Iranian case with the Iranian Foreign Ministry.”

Asked about apparent contradictions over Mr. Blair saying the crew had been freed and British Embassy statements that they had not yet been handed over to British authorities, a Downing Street spokesman would only say “the process is under way.”

Iranian state television showed the 14 men and one woman meeting with Mr. Ahmadinejad outside the presidential palace following his announcement at a news conference that they were being freed. The crew members were seized while on patrol in the northern Persian Gulf on March 23.

At the news conference, Mr. Ahmadinejad pinned a medal on the chest of the Iranian coast guard commander who intercepted the sailors and marines, then made the dramatic announcement.

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