Commodore Nick Lambert, commander of
the British Royal Navy frigate HMS Cornwall, speaks aboard his ship Friday
March 23, 2007in this image made from television.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Naval forces of Iran's Revolutionary Guards
captured 15 British sailors and marines at gunpoint Friday in the Persian
Gulf - a move coming during heightened tensions between the West and Iran.
U.S. and British officials said a boarding party from the frigate HMS
Cornwall was seized about 10:30 a.m. during a routine inspection of a merchant
ship inside Iraqi territorial waters near the disputed Shatt al-Arab waterway.
Iran's Foreign Ministry insisted the Britons were operating in Iranian waters
and would be held "for further investigation," Iranian state television said.
A U.S. Navy official in Bahrain, Cmdr. Kevin Aandahl, said Iran's
Revolutionary Guard naval forces were responsible and had broadcast a brief
radio message saying the British party was not harmed.
In London, the British government summoned the Iranian ambassador to the
Foreign Office, and Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said he "was left in no
doubt that we want them back."
Iranian TV quoted an Iranian Foreign Ministry official as saying the top
British diplomat in Tehran had been called in to receive Tehran's protest of the
"illegal entry" into Iranian waters.
"This is not the first time that British military personnel during the
occupation of Iraq have entered illegally into Iran's territorial waters," the
unidentified official was quoted as saying.
Britain's Defense Ministry said the Royal Navy personnel were "engaged in
routine boarding operations of merchant shipping in Iraqi territorial waters"
and had completed a ship inspection when they were accosted by Iranian vessels.
The eight Royal Navy sailors and seven Royal Marines were part of a task
force that protects Iraqi oil terminals and maintains security in Iraqi waters
under authority of the U.N. Security Council.
The Cornwall's commander, Commodore Nick Lambert, said the frigate lost
communication with the boarding party, but a helicopter crew saw Iranian naval
"I've got 15 sailors and marines who have been arrested by the Iranians and
my immediate concern is their safety," he told British Broadcasting Corp.
Lambert said he hoped it was a "simple mistake" stemming from the long
dispute between Iraq and Iran over demarcating their territorial waters just off
the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab, a waterway that divides the two countries.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said the Bush administration was
monitoring events. "The British government is demanding the immediate safe
return of the people and equipment and we are keeping watch on the situation,"
The incident occurred as the U.N. Security Council debates expanding
sanctions against Iran seeking to force Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment.
The U.S. and other nations suspect Iran is trying to produce nuclear weapons.
Iran denies that and insists it won't halt the program.
Iran's leaders also have denied allegations by the U.S., Britain and others
that Iranians are arming Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq.
Hours before the seizure of the Royal Navy team, British Lt. Col. Justin
Maciejewski told BBC Radio 4's "Today" program from the Iraqi city of Basra that
Iranians provided weapons and money to militants who are attacking British
troops in southern Iraq.
The U.S. military has leveled similar charges, saying Iranians send arms to
Iraqi extremists, including sophisticated roadside bombs.
This week, two commanders of an Iraqi Shiite militia told The Associated
Press in Baghdad that hundreds of Iraqi Shiites had crossed into Iran for
training by the elite Quds force, a branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard thought
to have trained Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
With tensions running high, the United States has bolstered its naval forces
in the Persian Gulf in a show of strength directed at Iran. A strike group led
by the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis recently joined a similar force led
by the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.
U.S. officials have expressed concern that with so much military hardware in
the Gulf, a small incident like Friday's could escalate into a dangerous
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, warned this week that if
Western countries "treat us with threats and enforcement of coercion and
violence, undoubtedly they must know that the Iranian nation and authorities
will use all their capacities to strike enemies that attack."
The seizure of two Royal Navy inflatable boats took place just outside the
mouth of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, a 125-mile channel dividing Iraq from Iran.
Its name means Arab Coastline in Arabic, and Iranians call it Arvandrud ¡ª
Persian for Arvand River.
A 1975 treaty recognized the middle of the waterway as the border. Iraqi
leader Saddam Hussein canceled the treaty five years later and invaded Iran,
triggering an eight-year war.
"It's been in dispute for some time," said Aandahl, the U.S. Navy official in
Bahrain. "We've been operating there for a couple of years and we know the lines
very well. This was a compliant boarding, this happens routinely. What's out of
the ordinary is the Iranian response."
In June 2004, six British marines and two sailors were seized by Iran in the
Shatt al-Arab. They were presented blindfolded on Iranian television and
admitted entering Iranian waters illegally, then released unharmed after three
Vali Nasr, a senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign
Relations, suggested Friday's detention could be connected to the arrest of five
Iranians in a U.S.-led raid in northern Iraq in January. The U.S. said the five
included a Revolutionary Guard general.
"I think Iran sees this as retaliation for the arrest of their own personnel.
They have repeatedly said that they want their personnel released," Nasr said.
"So they are either signaling that they can do the same thing or they are trying
to bring attention to it."