- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2007

LONDON — Fifteen British sailors and marines flew home after 13 days in Iranian captivity yesterday to a barrage of questions about their behavior while detained.

The 14 men and one woman, clad in ill-fitting civilian clothes and laden with bags full of CDs, candy and other gifts from their Iranian captors, flew out of Tehran aboard a British Airways jetliner and landed seven hours later in London en route to a marine base in southwest England.

They touched down at London’s Heathrow Airport almost precisely 24 hours after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in what was described as a stunning piece of political theater, told the eight sailors and seven marines that he was freeing them as “a gift to the British people.”

The 15, all crew members aboard the frigate HMS Cornwall, were flown immediately aboard two naval helicopters to the Royal Marines Base Chivenor, near Barnstaple, Devon. They were first to be reunited with their ecstatic families and then were to begin a military debriefing, starting with how they managed to be captured in the first place.

A spokesman for Devonport Naval Base in Plymouth told reporters the debriefing would last for “hours, not days.” He insisted that “the time scale might be based on what their needs are … the priority is how they feel.”

But it might not be that simple. Almost from the moment they were captured on March 23 by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the awkward questions have mounted — starting with whether, as the Iranians say, the Britons had strayed into Iranian waters or were still on the Iraqi side of the boundary.

Prime Minister Tony Blair based his case for their prompt release on his contention that the 15 were captured in Iraqi waters. But several of the captives were shown on Iranian television freely “confessing” to the Iranian government’s report that they had indeed strayed into Iranian territory.

The relaxed, often smiling appearance of the captives on Iranian TV, along with their admissions of guilt, has caused considerable unease in Britain.

Analyst Steven Glover wrote that Britain was likely to lose prestige in the Middle East “as a result of the on-screen admissions by several of the hostages that they had illegally strayed into Iranian waters, as well as their profuse and seemingly supine statements of gratitude to their captors.”

Another who said he was troubled by the images was Col. Bob Stewart, a commander of British peacekeeping forces during the Bosnian conflict.

“In the old way,” Col. Stewart told British Broadcasting Corp. radio, “we didn’t used to say much when we were taken as captive — name, rank, number, date of birth.” That is a far cry from current practice, under which British military personnel are advised to cooperate with their captors at their discretion if it can help save them from harm.

“I know things have changed, and I know they were not prisoners of war,” Col. Stewart said, “but I’m a little disquieted about it.”

Such images continued even as the service members prepared to leave Tehran yesterday.

As the Times newspaper in London reported, the 15 “were shown on Iranian television drinking tea and receiving gifts.”

“They looked relaxed and smiled as they went through bags of presents, pulling out what looked like black lacquer boxes,” the report continued. “They posed for a group shot, and some waved at the cameras.”

On the business-class flight back to Britain, the ex-captives laughed and joked. Journalists on board the airliner reported that champagne also flowed, but British military officials said that while they had not been told specifically to lay off the bubbly, they were reminded that they were “still on duty.”

Other questions were being raised in official circles, including why the captured sailors and marines failed to put up a fight, and why HMS Cornwell, whose radar is supposed to track and classify surface craft up to 30 miles away, apparently did not see the Revolutionary Guards’ gunboats approaching.

There was also speculation whether the government had made some sort of deal to help spring the captives, even though Mr. Blair insisted that they were released “without any deal, without any negotiation, without any side agreement of any nature.”

The deputy political editor of London’s Daily Mail newspaper, James Chapman, suggested another scenario. “Many believe the capture of the Britons was a direct retaliation for the seizure of five Iranian officials by U.S. forces in the Kurdish Iraqi city of Irbil in January,” he said.

Writing in the hours before the ex-captives flew home, Mr. Chapman wrote that “if [the Iranian detainees] are quietly released in the next few weeks, it will be hard for anyone to deny that a deal was made.”

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