- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2007

LONDON — Britain’s top naval officer yesterday defended the conduct of 15 sailors and marines seized by Iranian forces after inspecting a merchant vessel in the Persian Gulf. He said such operations will be suspended while a review is conducted.

Defense officials say none of the crew will be punished.

“For the moment, we have stopped [British] boarding operations. Coalition operations continue under U.K. command,” said Adm. Jonathon Band, head of the Royal Navy. “Currently, our [operations] have been suspended while we do that review.”

He told the British Broadcasting Corp. he believed the crew behaved with “considerable dignity and a lot of courage” during their 13 days in Iranian captivity.

He also said the so-called confessions made by some of them and their broadcast on Iranian state television appear to have been made under “a certain amount of psychological pressure.”

In Crawford, Texas, the White House denounced Iran’s treatment of the British after the captives said they were threatened with prison if they did not admit to straying into Iranian waters.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters near President Bush’s Texas ranch that the Iranians did not seem to engage in appropriate behavior in dealing with the troops who were seized in the Gulf two weeks ago.

“It’s unfortunate that the Iranians ever detained the sailors to begin with, considering they were operating under a U.N. mandate in Iraqi waters. So what the sailors said this morning — it’s unfortunate and extremely disappointing they were treated inappropriately in any way,” Mr. Johndroe said.

The British’s admiral’s defense comes after several British newspapers and defense analysts criticized the captured crew’s behavior in readily parroting the Iranian claims and the military for not adequately equipping the sailors.

“I would not agree at all that it was not our finest hour. I think our people have reacted extremely well in some very difficult circumstances,” he said.

One of the captives, Royal Navy Lt. Felix Carman, said they were blindfolded, bound and threatened with prison if they did not say they had strayed into Iranian waters.

“We were interrogated most nights and presented with two options. If we admitted that we’d strayed, we’d be on a plane to [Britain] pretty soon. If we didn’t, we faced up to seven years in prison,” he told reporters at Royal Marine Base Chivenor on Thursday.

Although no penalty is planned, officials will examine the circumstances in which some of the 15 appeared in videos offering regrets for entering Iran’s waters, while Britain’s government has insisted that they were in Iraqi waters.

“Was the intelligence correct?” Adm. Band asked. “We will look at the equipment, we will look at the procedures, we will look at all the things that happened,” he said.

“We certainly wouldn’t want this to happen again.”

Adm. Band also said the rules of engagement will be examined. Some commentators have criticized the crew for not fighting back when captured by armed Iranian forces.

“In the context of the operation that morning, with the force that was shown against them, they made exactly the right decision. I stand by what they did,” Adm. Band said.

An officer among the captured crew, Royal Marine Capt. Chris Air, said they were confronted by members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard during a routine operation.

“They rammed our boats, and trained their heavy machine guns, RPGs, and weapons on us. Another six boats were closing in on us,” Capt. Air told reporters. “We realized that had we resisted, there would have been a major fight, one we could not have won, with consequences that would have major strategic impacts. We made a conscious decision not to engage the Iranians.”

The video of four of the crew’s apologies and the letters written by the lone female sailor, Faye Turney, were met with disgust in Britain, where many were angry at Iran but some also harshly criticized the prisoners for caving.

Capt. Air said Seaman Turney was singled out for propaganda purposes, held in solitary confinement and told that the others had gone home.

Most British military personnel are given training on being captured, but only special operations troops and pilots receive specialized training on what to do if taken hostage, the ministry said.

Although analysts said the broadcast admissions were almost certainly made under duress, many British newspapers lashed out at the crew and the military.

“First, there is the apparent incompetence of the Royal Navy in providing insufficient protection to lightly armed inflatables,” the Daily Telegraph said in an editorial.

“Second, the seized personnel lost no time in admitting to having trespassed and in apologizing for their mistake. The old military practice of giving name, rank and number, and no more, has obviously been abandoned,” it said.

Some critics said U.S. troops would have behaved differently.

The Code of the U.S. Fighting Force, which guides troops if they are taken captive, says soldiers must resist participation in propaganda broadcasts or self-criticism of any kind.

The British personnel were in two inflatable boats when they were captured March 23 near the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab, a waterway and long-disputed dividing line between Iraq and Iran. They had just inspected an Indian cargo ship, one of 66 boardings they had performed during their mission in March, British officials said.

Iran said the crew entered Iranian waters. Britain insisted they were in Iraqi waters working under a U.N. mandate. A similar incident took place in 2004 when Iran seized a British crew for three days.

After the freed naval team returned home Thursday, Britain’s Sky News raised questions about the troops’ activities. Sky News reported that Capt. Air had said in an interview three weeks ago that the team was gathering intelligence on Iran during its patrols.

The Defense Ministry denied the boat patrol was an intelligence mission.

“We are certainly not spying on them,” Adm. Band said. “The Iranians in that part of Iraqi territorial waters are not part of the scene.”

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