Freed Britons Return Home As Calls for Probe Intensify
Friday, April 6, 2007
LONDON, April 5 -- The 15 British marines and sailors held captive by Iran for nearly two weeks returned home on Thursday as there were increasing calls for an investigation of the affair and confusion about whether their sudden release was part of a deal.
Iran's official news agency, IRNA, said the head of parliament's national security and foreign policy commission, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, "reiterated that all arrested British naval marines as well as the British government had confessed to having violated Iran's territorial waters."
The British denied that the crew had crossed into Iranian waters or that any apologies had been given. Speaking to reporters outside his Downing Street office, Prime Minister Tony Blair said his government had made no deals or promises to win the release of the service members, who were immediately whisked by helicopter from London's Heathrow Airport to a military base in southwest Britain for reunions with their families and security debriefings.
"I think what has actually happened is that we have managed to secure the release of our personnel more quickly than many people anticipated, and have done so -- and I want to make this very, very clear -- without any deal, without any negotiations, without any side agreement of any nature whatever," Blair said.
The release came as four British soldiers and their interpreter were killed by a roadside bomb near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, an incident Blair used to illustrate the problem Britain faces with Iran.
"It's far too early to say that the particular terrorist attack that killed our forces was an act committed by terrorists who were backed by any elements of the Iranian regime, so I make no allegation," he told reporters. "But the general picture, as I've said before, is that there are elements of the Iranian regime that are backing, financing, arming, supporting terrorism in Iraq," which he said could not be tolerated.
Carrying backpacks and duffel bags, the group of 14 men and one woman, held in Iran since March 23, disembarked at Heathrow in new military garb and stood in a line on the tarmac in front of reporters for a brief photo session before boarding two nearby British Royal Navy Sea King helicopters.
None waved, but all looked healthy, and many smiled and laughed. With the helicopter engines roaring in the background, it was not possible for reporters to talk to members of the group, who had been sequestered in the business-class compartment during their British Airways flight from Tehran, away from media representatives and other passengers. Reporters traveling on the plane said the service members drank champagne and looked relaxed.
Upon landing, the group was flown to Royal Marines Barracks Chivenor, near the far southwest British city of Barnstaple. A video released by the British Defense Ministry showed smiling sailors and marines in a joyous homecoming there with their families, enjoying deep embraces, wiping away tears, holding and hugging children, talking on cellphones and snapping pictures.
"It goes without saying that we are extremely happy to be back home in the U.K. and reunited with our loved ones," the group said in a joint release read to reporters by Lt. Col. Andy Price, a marine spokesman. "The welcome home we've enjoyed today is one none of us will ever forget. . . . We wish to thank everyone for their thoughts, kind words and prayers."
The group was conducting searches of boats near the mouth of the Shatt al Arab waterway, in an area of the Persian Gulf where the territorial line between Iran and Iraq is disputed, when they were apprehended by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Iran alleged that the crew had invaded its territorial waters, while Britain asserted that the group was about 1.7 miles inside Iraqi waters. Iran demanded an apology, Britain demanded the crew's unconditional release, and neither country would back down.
The standoff ended abruptly on Wednesday when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unexpectedly announced that the crew would be released as an Easter "present to the British people."