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Britain freezes official ties with Iran

Tehran says it won't free 15 naval personnel unless their government admits their vessel was trespassing.

March 29, 2007|Kim Murphy and Ramin Mostaghim | Special to the Times

LONDON — Britain on Wednesday froze all government contacts with Iran as the Islamic Republic came under mounting international and domestic pressure to release 15 British sailors and marines captured in the northern Persian Gulf.

British officials released detailed maps and coordinates they said proved that the detained navy and marine personnel were operating 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraqi territorial waters, and announced that they would have no ties with Iran except for talks to win the captives' release.

Iran said Wednesday the detainees were arrested 0.3 miles inside Iranian waters, underscoring what some experts say is the uncertain nature of the boundary that is at the heart of the dispute.

Iranian officials signaled at one point that the sole female sailor among the captives, who looked drawn and tense in images shown on Iranian television, may be released soon. But later in the day, Iran's foreign minister appeared to pull back from that position.

"We are now in a new phase of diplomatic activity," British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett told Parliament. "We will, therefore, be imposing a freeze on all other official bilateral business with Iran until this situation is resolved."

The freeze will include diplomatic contacts, trade missions and the issuance of visas to Iranian government officials, the Foreign Office said.

Outrage over footage

The action came as Iranian TV broadcast footage of the captives, including Leading Seaman Faye Turney, 26, who told an off-camera interviewer that she and her colleagues had trespassed into Iranian waters.

"I am so sorry we did, because I know we wouldn't be here now if we hadn't," Turney said in a handwritten letter to her family that was also shown on the broadcast. "I have written a letter to the Iranian people to apologize for us entering into their waters. Please don't worry about me, I am staying strong."

The British government immediately protested, calling it "completely unacceptable" for footage of the detained sailors and marines to be shown on television.

"Given the nature of Leading Seaman Faye Turney's statement, in particular the apparent confession that the personnel were 'arrested after they trespassed into Iranian waters,' we have grave concerns as to the circumstances under which she made this statement," the Foreign Office said in a statement after the broadcast.

The Iranian government, already isolated economically and diplomatically over its nuclear program, has come under increasing domestic pressure to end the standoff.

Opposition figures in Tehran spoke out against the hard-line government.

"The capture of the 15 British sailors was a blunder from the very beginning and the continuation of it is a mistake as well," said Rajabali Mazrouie, a former lawmaker and journalist for the daily newspaper Sarmayie in Tehran.

He and others criticized the government for pursuing a risky policy of brinksmanship based on miscalculations about U.S. and British capabilities.

But hard-liners continued to press their case. Conservative students near the southern border town of Shalamcheh demonstrated for a second day, burning an effigy of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and demanding that authorities put the British detainees on trial.

Iran's state-run Arabic language Alalam TV aired images of the detainees, who are first seen in a small inflatable raft in footage apparently shot during the boat seizure, and then cut to them dining. Turney was then shown wearing a black head scarf and smoking a cigarette, red-faced and apparently nervous.

"I am being well looked after. I am fed three meals a day and have a constant supply of fluids," she said in her letter, which was later released by the Iranian Embassy in London. "The people are friendly and hospitable, very compassionate and warm," she wrote.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini told The Times that Turney would be handed over to the British Embassy in Tehran "within one or two days, God willing." But Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told the Associated Press in an interview in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that the prisoners would not be released until Britain admitted they had entered Iranian waters.

"First they have to admit that they have made a mistake," Mottaki said. "Admitting the mistake will facilitate a solution to the problem."

The Iranian Embassy in London released a statement apparently seeking to cool the dispute that has sent oil prices soaring and raised fears of a serious confrontation. It emphasized that the incident was not related to the conflict over Iran's nuclear program, or the recent vote by the United Nations Security Council imposing more sanctions against Iran.

"We are of this belief that this legal and technical issue has no link to any other issues and unfounded speculations and excited rhetorics can be counterproductive," the statement said.

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