Iranian Leader Says He Will Free Britons

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 4, 2007; 10:18 AM

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad today said he had "pardoned" 15 British sailors and marines seized by the Iranian military two weeks ago and would free them to be with their families.

Ending a diplomatic crisis with a bit of political theater, the Iranian president held a press conference in Tehran in which he first decorated members of the Iranian Republican Guard who had taken the 15 British personnel captive in the Persian Gulf -- then made the surprise announcement that the contingent of Royal Marines and British Navy sailors would be released.

"I announce their freedom," the Iranian president said, according to a translation of Ahmadinejad's press conference aired on CNN. "They will be free after our meeting. They will go to the airport and be with their families."

The announcement came amid intense diplomatic contacts between Iran and Britian over an issue that had increased tensions throughout the region and driven up global crude oil prices. Iranian authorities first hinted at a trial; protests broke out in London.

Prime Minister Tony Blair reacted angrily, particularly when Iranian television aired videotape of some of the captives "confessing" that they had been operating in Iranian waters. Blair insisted that the 15 were captured in Iraqi waters after carrying out an inspection of a suspected smuggling ship under a U.N. mandate.

President Bush issued sharp remarks referring to the 15 as "hostages," and the U.S. military announced that a second aircraft carrier was heading toward the Persian Gulf.

After several days of sharp rhetoric on both sides, the crisis began cooling this week.

In what U.S. and British authorities insisted was mere coincidence, an Iranian diplomat being held in Iraq was released on Tuesday.

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 search for smugglers off the coast of Iraq in an era of repeated border disputes with Iran.

The British military says the sailors were clearly in Iraqi waters when they were encircled by boats from the Republican Guard naval corps and taken into custody.

Iran contended they had crossed the line into Iranian territory. Ahmadinejad today in fact asked Blair not to punish the sailors for their remarks on Iranian television in which he said they told the "truth" about intruding into Iranian waters.

"Iran was saddened that Great Britain violated the territorial waters of Iran," said Ahmadinejad, as he decorated three members of the Iranian military. "Iran demonstrated bravery and consistency. . . . As a representative of our great nation I want to thank our guards who bravely protected our borders."

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