UN support for Britain 'weak'

The 15-member body adopted a watered down statement expressing "grave concern" at the detention of 15 British sailors and marines but stopped well short of London's call for censuring Tehran.

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It capped a day of hectic consultations by turning back London's request for a call for the immediate release of its nationals because of strong opposition from Russia.

South African Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo, the current council chair, read a non-binding statement expressing "grave concern at the capture and continued detention" of the Britons, while calling on Tehran to allow "consular access" to them.

Britain had sought a tougher stance against the Iranians, who seized the 15 Britons, including a female sailor, last Friday in two boats during what London says were anti-smuggling operations in Iraqi waters.

But a Western diplomat quoted Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin as telling the council during the closed-door consultations that Moscow would not back Britain's call for UN support.

"We will not be able to accept a call for the immediate release of the 15 UK naval personnel," Churkin said, according to the diplomat.

Several diplomats said Russia, backed by some other council members such as Indonesia, was keen to avoid giving the impression that the council was taking sides in what is seen as a bilateral dispute, particularly on the issue of exactly where the 15 Britons were seized.

The British foreign ministry refused to discuss the strength of the adopted text.

"The statement that was agreed, it's a text which secured unanimous agreement, and its a clear statement of the members of the security council representing the international community," a spokeswoman for the British foreign ministry told newswire agency AFP.

The spokeswoman declined to comment on whether the final draft was a weaker version of the statement proposed by Britain, saying:

"I can't go into detail on the negotiations themselves."

"We now need to move forward to get our 15 people released as soon as possible."

The original British draft circulated yesterday would have had the Security Council "deplore the continuing detention by the Government of Iran of 15 UK naval personnel" and back "calls for (their) immediate release".

It noted that "the UK personnel were operating in Iraqi waters as part of the Multinational Force-Iraq under a mandate from the Security Council under Resolution 1723 (2006) and at the request of the government of Iraq."

The United States earlier reiterated its strong backing for its close British ally.

"The British government, I think, has gone out and demonstrated that these people were in international waters," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in an interview with Fox television network.

"I think they need to be released and the international community needs to say to Iran that they need to be released and that is what we're doing. We're trying to do anything that we can with other parties to help the British," she added.

Earlier, Britain's UN envoy Emyr Jones Parry told reporters that Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates of two British boats were changed by Iran to make it appear they were in Iranian waters.

"It was only when we point out that the detention was inappropriate and in our view unlawful that the coordinates were then changed by the Iranian government to be coordinates within Iranian waters," Jones Parry said.

The 15 Britons were captured on Friday in the northern Gulf in what Iran insists were its territorial waters.

But Britain says they were picked up while on a routine patrol in Iraqi waters.

Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said today that London must recognise a violation of Iranian territorial waters if it wanted to help resolve the crisis.

Meanwhile, world oil prices soared to six month highs on the spike in tension.

London announced on Wednesday that it was freezing official contacts with Tehran because of the detentions.

Britain receives message from Iran

Britain confirmed on Friday that its embassy in Tehran had received a "formal note" from the Iranian government, but declined to provide details about the message.

"We can confirm that … the Iranian government has sent a formal note to the British embassy," a foreign ministry spokeswoman told AFP.

"Such exchanges are always confidential, so we cannot divulge any details. But we are giving the message serious consideration, and will soon respond formally to the Iranian government."

The spokeswoman declined to comment on the content of the note, or on when it was received.

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