Iran Releases 15 Captive Britons

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 5, 2007

LONDON, April 5 -- An hour into a news conference marked by his trademark tirades against the West, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a stunner Wednesday: Iran would release 15 British marines and sailors it had captured in the Persian Gulf and held for almost two weeks. Early Thursday, the former captives departed Tehran, bringing to a peaceful end what had been a tense international standoff.

Calling the release an Easter gift to the British people, Ahmadinejad said the captives would go free immediately after his afternoon news conference. The 15 Britons, wearing civilian clothes and looking ebullient, later appeared with him outside his presidential palace, one of them expressing gratitude to him for his "forgiveness."

At about 8.30 a.m. local time Thursday, the entire group flew out of Tehran on board a regularly scheduled British Airways flight to London, the Associated Press reported.

"I'm glad that our 15 service personnel have been released, and I know their release will come as a relief not just to them but to their families," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Wednesday in a brief appearance outside his Downing Street office.

"Throughout, we have taken a measured approach, firm but calm, not negotiating but not confronting either," Blair said. "And to the Iranian people I would simply say this: We bear you no ill will. On the contrary, we respect Iran as an ancient civilization, as a nation with a proud and dignified history."

Family members said they were overjoyed. Some popped champagne in celebration. "We're absolutely over the moon," said Stephen Coe, father of captive sailor Chris Coe. "It's the best news we've had for a long time."

The stalemate began March 23 when 15 Royal Navy sailors and marines who were inspecting ships in the Persian Gulf were captured by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The British crew was conducting searches near the demarcation line that separates the territorial waters of Iran and Iraq.

Iranian officials said the sailors and marines had "invaded" Iranian waters and demanded an apology, while Britain maintained that the crew members were well within Iraqi waters and demanded their unconditional release. The ensuing standoff came as the U.N. Security Council stiffened sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.

Tensions escalated when state-run Iranian television aired footage of the lone female captive, Faye Turney, in a head scarf, apologizing and stating that the group had "trespassed" in Iranian waters. Later, Iran released a letter said to be in Turney's handwriting in which she criticized Britain's presence in Iraq.

The broadcast and the release of the letter outraged British officials, who said Turney's statements were obviously coerced. Other captives were shown on Iranian television, and Iranian officials said all 15 had apologized and confessed, further inflaming the situation. Hundreds of demonstrators marched on the British Embassy in Tehran.

"After 13 days of confusion, the Iranian different power groups had got together and decided that now things should be finished," Chris Rundle, a retired British diplomat who served in Iran, concluded Wednesday. "I think they came to realize that with the international pressure on them, and with the so-called confessions from the captives, that was the most they could get out of the situation."

Ahmadinejad sprang his surprise during an afternoon news conference that had already gone on for an hour, leading analysts in Britain to believe he had no major announcement to make about the 13-day old crisis. After blasting Western policies in the Middle East, then awarding medals to the Iranian commanders who had detained the British naval personnel, Ahmadinejad turned to the stalemate over the captives.

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