UK: sailors in Iraqi waters

Britain today rejected a demand by Iran's foreign minister that it admit its 15 sailors and marines entered Iranian waters in order to resolve a standoff over their capture.

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Since the crew's detention last week, Britain has insisted they were in Iraqi waters.

A Foreign Office official in London said no admission would be forthcoming because "the detention is completely wrong, illegal and unacceptable and we've set out the reasons why."

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, pointed to the satellite positioning coordinates released by the Defence Ministry yesterday to show the British sailors were in Iraqi waters when the Iranian navy seized them.

The demand by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki for the British admission came on a day of escalating tensions, highlighted by an Iranian video of the detained Britons that showed the only woman captive saying her group had "trespassed" in Iranian waters.

Britain angrily denounced yesterday's video as unacceptable and froze most dealings with the Mideast nation.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Mottaki also backed off a prediction that the female sailor, Faye Turney, could be freed yesterday or today, but said Tehran agreed to allow British officials to meet with the detainees.

He said that Iran will look into releasing Turney "as soon as possible."

Mr Mottaki said that if the alleged entry into Iranian waters was a mistake "this can be solved. But they have to show that it was a mistake. That will help us to end this issue."

"Admitting the mistake will facilitate a solution to the problem," he said late yesterday night in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he was attending an Arab summit.

The British military released a GPS readout on yesterday that it said proved the Royal Navy personnel were seized 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraqi waters.

But in the interview, Mr Mottaki said Iran had GPS devices from the seized British boats that showed they were in Iranian territory.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government announced it was freezing all dealings with Iran except to negotiate the release of its personnel, adding to a public exchange of sharp comments that helped fuel a spike in world oil prices.

At the United Nations in New York, Britain asked the Security

Council to support a call for the immediate release of detainees, saying in a statement they were operating in Iraqi waters under a mandate from the Security Council and at the request of Iraq, according to council diplomats.

Earlier yesterday, a brief video of the captured Britons was shown on Iran's Arabic language satellite television station, Al-Alam.

One segment showed sailors and marines sitting in an Iranian boat in open waters immediately after their capture.

The video also displayed what appeared to be a handwritten letter from Ms Turney, 26, to her family.

"I have written a letter to the Iranian people to apologise for us entering their waters," it said. The letter also asks Turney's parents in Britain to look after her 3-year-old daughter, Molly, and her husband, Adam.

The video showed Ms Turney in checkered head scarf and her uniform eating with other sailors and marines. Later, wearing a white tunic and black head scarf, she sat in a room before floral curtains and smoked a cigarette.

Ms Turney was the only detainee to be shown speaking, giving her name and saying she had been in the navy for nine years.

"Obviously we trespassed into their waters," Ms Turney said at one point, her voice audible under a simultaneous Arabic translation.

"They were very friendly and very hospitable, very thoughtful, nice people. They explained to us why we've been arrested. There was no harm, no aggression."

Before the video was broadcast, a spokesman for Blair said any showing of British personnel on TV would be a breach of the Geneva Conventions.

After the footage was aired, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said she was "very concerned about these pictures and any indication of pressure on, or coercion of, our personnel. … I am particularly disappointed that a private letter has been used in a way which can only add to the distress of the families."

The third Geneva Convention bans subjecting prisoners of war to intimidation, insults or "public curiosity." Because there is no armed conflict between Iran and Britain, the captives would not technically be classified as prisoners of war.

Blair told the House of Commons that "there was no justification whatever … for their detention, it was completely unacceptable, wrong and illegal."

"We had hoped to see their immediate release; this has not happened. It is now time to ratchet up the diplomatic and international pressure in order to make sure the Iranian government understands its total isolation on this issue," he said.

Ms Beckett said Britain would focus all its efforts on resolving the issue.

"We will, therefore, be imposing a freeze on all other official bilateral business with Iran until the situation is resolved. We will keep other aspects of our policy towards Iran under close review and continue to proceed carefully.

“But no one should be in any doubt about the seriousness with which we regard these events," she said.

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