Tehran: 'No UK sailor trial'

Tehran says it wants to resolve the crisis through diplomacy and Britain has expressed willingness to discuss ways to avoid future boundary confusion in the Persian Gulf.

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The somewhat conciliatory tones from both capitals raised hopes the 11-day standoff might be solved soon.

But it remained unclear how long the crisis might drag on. Optimistic signs have emerged before, only to be followed by a hardening of positions and tough rhetoric.

Diplomacy the answer

Iran's chief international negotiator said today his country wants to resolve the crisis through diplomacy, and there was no need to put the crew on trial.

Ali Larijani said Iran's priority "is to solve the problem through proper diplomatic channels".

"We are not interested in letting this issue get further complicated," he told Britain's Channel 4 television news.

Earlier today, an Iranian state-run television station said all 15 British sailors and marines had confessed to illegally entering Iranian waters.

However, Iranian state-run radio said the confessions would not be broadcast because of what it called "positive changes" in Britain's negotiating stance. The radio did not elaborate on the changes.

But in London, a British official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Prime Minister Tony Blair's government had agreed to consider ways to avoid such situations in the future.

The official insisted Britain was not negotiating with the Iranians and still wanted the captives freed unconditionally.

The Britons were detained on March 23 by naval units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards 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.

Tehran says the crew was in Iranian waters. Britain insists its troops were in Iraqi waters working under a UN mandate.

Envoy to negotiate

This weekend, London 's The Sunday Telegraph newspaper reported that Britain was considering sending a senior Royal Navy officer to Tehran to discuss the return of the service members as well as discuss ways to avoid future incidents.

All that suggested that the two sides were seeking a face-facing formula in which each could maintain that its interests were upheld and the captives could go free. Under such a formula, Iran could claim Britain tacitly acknowledged that the border area was in dispute. Britain could maintain it never apologised.

A generation ago, such a formula helped free US diplomats held by Tehran for 444 days. The US pledged not to interfere in Iranian affairs, enabling the hostage takers to claim they had achieved their goal.

The renewed diplomatic efforts followed tough rhetoric last week from both sides, which prompted each government to dig in its heels.

Britain suspended all other diplomatic contacts with Iran, froze work to support trade missions and stopped issuing of visas to Iranian diplomats.

The British also sought help from other countries, including Muslim Turkey, to press Iran to free the captives.

Those moves prompted Iran to suspend plans to free the only woman captive, Seaman Faye Turney, and to suggest that the Britons might face trial.

To reinforce their claims, the Iranians also broadcast video footage that showed four of the crew saying they were captured in Iranian waters. In footage yesterday, two of the sailors used maps to show the alleged location where they were seized.

That enraged the British, who said the confessions were clearly made under duress.

"The Iranians know our position, they know that stage-managed TV appearances are not going to affect our position," Mr Blair's official spokesman said on condition of anonymity in line with government policy. "They know we have strong international support."

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