- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 25, 2007

TEHRAN — Iran claimed yesterday that 15 British sailors and marines had confessed to entering its waters in an act of “blatant aggression,” an escalation of Tehran’s rhetoric over the confrontation.

The British Foreign Office summoned Iran’s ambassador for the second time in two days, saying an undersecretary had spent more than an hour in “frank and civil” talks demanding the safe return of the sailors and Royal Marines, and seeking assurances about their welfare and access to British consular officials.

Iran’s top military official, Gen. Ali Reza Afshar, said the sailors and marines were moved to Tehran and under interrogation “confessed to illegal entry” and an “aggression into the Islamic republic of Iran’s waters.” Gen. Afshar did not say what would happen to the sailors and marines.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini accused the British of “violating the sovereign boundaries” of Iran, calling the entry a “blatant aggression.”

The British government appeared to be avoiding harsh language in its public statements, and it avoided suggesting a link between the prisoners and Iran’s nuclear dispute with the U.N. Security Council.

The British servicemen had just searched a merchant ship Friday morning when they and their two inflatable boats were intercepted by Iranian vessels near the disputed Shatt al-Arab waterway, U.S. and British officials said. The Iranians surrounded them and escorted them away at gunpoint.

In June 2004, six British marines and two sailors were captured, then paraded blindfolded on Iranian television. They admitted they had entered Iranian waters illegally, but were released unharmed after three days.

Iranian hard-liners have already called for the 15 Britons to be held until Iran wins concessions from the West.

Several hard-line student groups urged the Iranian government not to release the Britons until five Iranians detained by U.S. forces in Iraq earlier this year are freed and the U.N.’s new sanctions against Iran are canceled.

Some 500 Iranian students gathered on the shore near where the Britons were captured, shouting “Death to Britain” and “Death to America,” the semiofficial Fars news agency reported.

With tensions already running high, the United States has bolstered its naval forces in the Persian Gulf in a show of strength directed at Iran. There is concern that with so much military hardware in the Gulf, a small incident could escalate dangerously.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, warned last week that Western countries “must know that the Iranian nation and authorities will use all their capacities to strike enemies that attack.”

The Britons were seized in an area where the boundaries of Iraqi and Iranian waters have long been disputed. A 1975 treaty set the center of the Shatt al-Arab — the 125-mile-long channel known in Iran as the Arvand River — as the border.

But then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein canceled that treaty five years later and invaded Iran, triggering an eight-year war. Virtually all of Iraq’s oil is exported through an oil terminal near the mouth of the channel.

Iran and the new Iraqi government have not signed a new treaty on sovereignty over the waterway.

The seized sailors and marines, from the British frigate HMS Cornwall, are part of a task force that maintains security in Iraqi waters under authority of the U.N. Security Council.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide