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Iran to Free Captured British Sailors, Marines

In addition, Iran's state-run Islamic Republic News Agency reported today that Iranian personnel would be allowed to meet with five Iranian men taken by U.S. forces late last year in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. The United States contends the men were involved in smuggling arms to Iraqi militants.

The sailors and marines from the British naval frigate HMS Cornwall were taken captive during a routine operation in which they had boarded and searched a vessel suspected of smuggling automobiles.

The waters between Iran and Iraq have been a subject of repeated dispute -- including a 2004 incident in which British sailors were captured and held for three days.

In this case, the British military said its personnel were clearly in Iraqi waters, with permission to operate from both the United Nations and the government of Iraq, when they were encircled by boats from Iran's Republican Guard naval corps and taken into custody.

Ahmadinejad said in the news conference today that Iran had the "legal right" to put the British captives on trial. Nevertheless, he said, Iran instead would "give amnesty and pardon to these 15 people."

"Iran was saddened that Great Britain violated the territorial waters of Iran," said Ahmadinejad, as he gave the third degree medal of courage to Iranian Coast Guard Capt. Abolqassem Amangah. "Iran demonstrated bravery and consistency. . . . As a representative of our great nation, I want to thank our guards who bravely protected our borders."

The Iranian president also injected a bit of gamesmanship into his remarks, appearing to taunt Blair over the Britons' televised admissions of having trespassed into Iranian waters.

"I request the government of Mr. Blair not to question these people or place them on trial for speaking the truth," Ahmadinejad said. "And I request Mr. Blair, rather than to increase international controversy or the occupation of other lands, to take steps toward peace, truthfulness and justice and to serve the people of England."

"This pardon is a gift to the British people," he said.

The Iranian president also criticized Britain for sending a woman to the Gulf, a reference to Faye Turney, a 26-year-old Royal Navy sailor who has a 3-year-old daughter. "How can you justify seeing a mother away from her home, her children?" Ahmadinejad said, according to AP. "Why don't they respect family values in the West?"

Later, Ahmadinejad personally said goodbye to the captives at his presidential palace. Several of the British sailors and marines, dressed in business suits and towering over the diminutive Iranian president, thanked him and shook his hand as television cameras rolled.

"You've been very kind to us," one of the British told Ahmadinejad. "We're very grateful for your forgiveness. I'd like to thank yourself and the Iranian people."

"Good luck," Ahmadinejad said. "Thank you very much, sir," the British seaman replied.

The Iranian leader, speaking through an interpreter, told another of the captives that they were being released "because of the birthday of the great prophet of Islam."

"Your people have been very kind to us, and I appreciate that very much," the Briton told him. "Have success," Ahmadinejad replied.

At one point, a smiling Ahmadinejad joked with one of the men, "So, you came on a mandatory vacation," Reuters news agency reported.

Turney, the lone woman among the 15, appeared at the ceremony wearing a blue headscarf, pants and a long-sleeved jacket over a pink and white striped shirt.

Washington Post special correspondent Karla Adam contributed to this report from London.

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