LONDON - Britain hopes that diplomacy will win the release of 15 sailors and
marines detained by Iran but is prepared to move to a "different phase" if not,
Prime Minister Tony Blair said Tuesday.
Britain and the United States have
said the sailors and marines were intercepted Friday just after they completed a
search of a civilian vessel in the Iraqi part of the Shatt al-Arab waterway,
where the border with Iran has historically been disputed.
HMS Cornwall sails through the Gulf. Minister Tony Blair has warned Iran
that the standoff over the capture of 15 sailors would enter a "different
phase" if diplomatic efforts to secure their release failed.
"I hope we manage to get them (the Iranian government) to realize they have
to release them," Blair said in an interview with GMTV. "If not, then this will
move into a different phase."
Asked what that meant, Blair said: "Well, we will just have to see, but what
they should understand is that we cannot have a situation where our servicemen
and women are seized when actually they are in Iraqi waters under a UN mandate,
patrolling perfectly rightly and in accordance with that mandate, and then
effectively captured and taken to Iran."
Iran said Monday it was questioning the British sailors and marines to
determine if their alleged entry into Iranian waters was "intentional or
unintentional" before deciding what to do with them - the first sign it could be
seeking a way out of the standoff.
A British reporter embedded with the Royal Navy reported in The Independent
newspaper that the incident began when the sailors and marines approached a
Japanese merchant ship suspected of smuggling second-hand cars into Iraq without
That could not be immediately confirmed with US, Iraqi or British officials.
Iran has refused to say where the captured Britons were being held or to
allow British officials to speak with them, but assured the British ambassador
to Tehran, Geoffrey Adams, that they were in good health.
Blair said his primary concern was the welfare of the British sailors and
"What we are trying to do at the moment is to pursue this through the
diplomatic channels and make the Iranian government understand these people have
to be released and that there is absolutely no justification whatever for
Calls for the release of the Britons also came from the European Union, Iraq
and the United States, under whose command the military search team was serving.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the personnel were seized in Iraqi
waters and should be released.
A 1975 treaty between Iran and Iraq set their border as running down the
center of the Shatt al-Arab, but Saddam Hussein canceled the treaty before
invading Iran in 1980 and setting of a devastating war. Iran claims the border
runs along the deepest parts of the river.