- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 31, 2007

From combined dispatches

LONDON — An Iranian exile group claimed yesterday that the capture of 15 British naval personnel was premeditated “to win concessions from the international community and divert attention from its nuclear projects.”

The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) said that a Revolutionary Guard garrison was on full alert from the night before the incident.

Hossein Abedini, of the NCRI foreign affairs committee, said at a press conference in London that the move was a “meticulously concocted operation.”

But the Revolutionary Guard plus Iran’s foreign and intelligence ministries had decided that this fact should be covered up, he added.

“You can see that the clerical regime had in a premeditated attack arrested British soldiers in order to win concessions from the international community and divert attention from its nuclear projects,” he said.

The NCRI said its information had come from within the Revolutionary Guards through the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, a dissident movement that was banned in Britain, the European Union and the United States.

The organization, which describes itself as the parliament in exile of the Iranian resistance, provided no substantive evidence to back up its claims. However, the group’s information from inside Iran has proved accurate in the past.

It exposed Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium, which the clerical regime had kept hidden from the world for two decades, setting in motion the present confrontation between Tehran and the West over a suspected nuclear weapons program.

Iran and Britain, meanwhile, continued to pound each other with rhetoric as fears rose that the hostage crisis would turn into a long-term standoff.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted yesterday that the captured British servicemen had been seized in Iranian waters, calling Britain and its allies “arrogant” for refusing to apologize, the country’s official news agency reported.

“The British occupier forces did trespass our waters. Our border guards detained them with skill and bravery. But arrogant powers, because of their arrogant and selfish spirit, are claiming otherwise,” IRNA quoted Mr. Ahmadinejad as saying during a speech in the southeastern city of Andinmeshk.

British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett urged Iran to resolve the crisis peacefully, saying London remains open to dialogue.

The British sailors and marines were detained by Iranian naval units March 23 while patrolling for smugglers near the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab, a waterway that has long been a disputed dividing line between Iraq and Iran. Britain insists that the service members were in Iraqi waters. Iran has been saying the Britons were in Iranian waters and has demanded an apology.

An Iranian diplomat said earlier yesterday that the case had entered a legal phase, according to the news agency.

IRNA said on its Web site that Gholam-Reza Ansari, the Iranian ambassador to Russia, had told Russian television Vesti-24 that, “the case of the detention of British sailors has taken on a judicial form.”

IRNA originally quoted the ambassador yesterday morning as saying the sailors and marines could be “tried if there is enough evidence of guilt.” But the agency published a correction later claiming Mr. Ansari’s comments were incorrectly translated by Russian television.

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