- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 2, 2009

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran freed five British sailors detained last week when their racing yacht drifted accidentally into Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf. Britain said it was delighted with Wednesday’s release and praised Tehran’s handling of the incident.

The 60-foot yacht was in the Persian Gulf on its way from Bahrain to Dubai last Wednesday for the start of its first offshore race when it ran into a problem with its propeller, said Andrew Pindar, whose Team Pindar owns the yacht. It drifted into Iranian waters and was seized by the elite Revolutionary Guard’s navy

“After carrying out an investigation and interrogation of the five British sailors, it became clear that their illegal entry was a mistake,” the Revolutionary Guard said in a statement carried by the official IRNA news agency. “After obtaining necessary guarantees, it was decided to release them.”

The British government had tried to keep the case from being politicized at a time when Tehran is under heavy pressure from the West over its nuclear program. Iran has accused Britain and other foreign governments of stoking the country’s postelection street protests.

The tensions with the West have also been heightened by Iran’s detention of three Americans arrested this summer after they strayed across the border from northern Iraq. Washington and their families say the three unintentionally crossed into Iran while hiking, but Tehran recently accused them of espionage.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband confirmed the release of the five Britons and said they were being towed in their boat to international waters. From there, they would be towed to Dubai.

“I welcome the fact this has been dealt with in a straightforward, professional way by the Iranian authorities,” Miliband said. “Obviously this has been a real ordeal for the young men and their families and I’m really delighted that it’s over for them and that we can call the matter closed.”

near the Iranian island of Sirri, which lies near the mouth of the narrow Hormuz Strait off Dubai. It was not clear where the Britons were held during their week in custody.

Team Pindar is an independent British-based yachting team. It runs the yacht called Kingdom of Bahrain under the Sail Bahrain initiative in partnership with the tiny Gulf island kingdom of Bahrain.

“We are all absolutely thrilled with the news,” said Andrew Pindar. “It has been an extremely worrying time for all of us and particularly for the families and loved ones of those on board.”

He said the team has sent out a boat to meet the crew and accompany them safely to shore and thanked Iranian authorities. The yacht was expected to be out of Iranian waters Wednesday afternoon.

David Young, whose son Oliver is among the five yachtsmen seized, said he was “very relieved” by the news. “We thought it would be over quickly. This is what we were hoping for,” Young said.

Iran warned Tuesday the sailors would be prosecuted if it was proven they had “bad intentions” when they entered Iranian waters.

IRNA said Miliband and Iranian Foreign Minister Manochehr Mottaki discussed the matter late Tuesday and Miliband said there was “certainly no question of any malicious intent on the part of these five young people.”

“This is a human story … It’s got nothing to do with politics. It’s got nothing to do with the nuclear enrichment program,” Miliband said.

Bahrain, which has long had a tense relationship with its larger neighbor across the Gulf, also contacted the Iranians to say the boat entered Iranian waters by mistake and to push for the crew’s release.

The yacht had been heading to join the 360-mile (580-kilometer) Dubai-Muscat Offshore Sailing Race, which was to begin Nov. 26. The race went ahead without the yacht.

British media had identified the five Britons as Oliver Smith, of Southampton; Sam Usher, of Scarborough; Luke Porter, of Weston-super-Mare; Oliver Young, of Saltash; and David Bloomer, who is from Malahide, Ireland but holds a British passport.

In an interview with Iranian TV Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made no mention of the yachtsmen. However, he singled out Britain for criticism, saying it and Israel were behind a tough resolution by the U.N. nuclear watchdog rebuking Iran over its nuclear program.

In 2007, Iran seized 15 British military personnel in the Gulf, claiming they had entered Iranian waters, though Britain insisted they were in Iraqi waters. Eventually all were freed without an apology from Britain.

Associated Press Writer Jennifer Quinn in London contributed to this report.

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